Monday, August 6, 2007


Part of my research is focused on historical changes in forest landscapes in Japan. Historical ecology as an approach emerged from critiques of the neo-functionalism of Rappaport, who I wrote about previously. The neo-functionalist approach focused on ecological and human systems as functional entities that took on a timeless quality. The idea was to understand how a system maintains balance, so little attention was paid to processes of change (history). Thinking in terms of ‘non-history’ stemmed from the old dichotomy of nature/culture, which I’ve focused on a lot. In these terms culture is historical, changing—humans create culture and it progresses through time. Due to their very ‘primitiveness’ tribal groups were conceived of as existing outside of culture. Obviously things were not so simple as this, but it’s important to understand how anthropologists (and others) were struggling to think about historical versus natural processes.

It was Eric Wolf and his book Europe and the People Without History that brought historical thinking into anthropology. Essentially, he showed that understanding the history of a certain people was critical to studies in the present. Wolf was well versed in the writings of Karl Marx, so he was particularly interested in showing that the rise of capitalism of had impacted the entire globe; in other words, there were no ‘people without history’.

Notions of historical change demanded the rethinking of notions of indigenous people as ‘noble savages’ maintaining harmonious balances with their environments. Archaeologists had for years understood that different people had different impacts on their environments and so there was a refocusing on understanding the processes of human/environment interactions. In this way historical ecology began to take form. Investigations into the ways that humans impact their environments began to yield interesting results. William Denevan, for example, argued against the ‘pristine myth’ that had developed in America, which conceived of nature as wild and untouched. He showed that pre-contact America was better characterized as a garden, one that had been managed by indigenous groups for thousands of years. Numerous other studies from all around the world began to uncover the footprints in what were thought to be ‘pristine’ environments.

Historical ecology, therefore, begins with the premise that the humans have impacted, to greater and lesser degrees, every part of the biosphere; in most cases these impacts have been occurring for thousands of years.

Japan is no exception. In fact heavy deforestation has been occurring since the 7th century to support monumental construction. Visiting the wonderful temples of Kyoto and Nara takes on a new dimension in this light. What’s more, many forests in Japan have been closely managed since the 17th century. In other words, ‘natural’ forests have not existed in Japan for hundreds of years.

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