University of Malta
Human Ecology is the interdisciplinary and trans-disciplinary study of the relationship between humans and their natural, social, and built environments. It plays an important role in culture, which has been implied to signify the ” pattern of life within a community-the regularly recurring activities and material and social arrangements ” of a specific group, since human beings’ relationships with nature have always been structured through physical and cultural means.
Like all species, humans must adapt to their environment and human practices entail organisation, establish and perpetuate social relations, meanings, and values. Anthropologists typically regard economics as the core of culture where the former plays an influential role in the cultural system, as will be discussed in the course of this essay.
All societies face a fundamental challenge which is to meet the basic requirements of human living like feeding, clothing and providing a roof for their members. Different societies dealt with this challenge in different ways, based on the available resources in their environment, but all shared one common factor; they solved the problem of survival by working together aspiring for a better future. Furthermore, human ecology in relation to culture, affects the social background of the products and of the relationships within which those products are made, distributed, and used.
Ecology in relation to Culture
In order to be anthropologically relevant, the study of economics, one main part of human ecology, must be cross-cultural, inclusive, holistic and relativistic. Holism or cultural integration means that all of the aspects of a culture, including its environmental context, will be interrelated and interdependent. Economy deals with the practices and the associated beliefs, values and roles, involved in transforming the environment into usable products for humans.
Understanding the relations between the four domains of culture previously mentioned, results with the notion of adaptation; the process by which humans fit themselves into and cooperate with their surroundings. This mainly takes the form of behavioural modification. Culture is the uniquely human ecological adaptation which includes the environment which a group or society of humans inhabits, as well as, any environment with a particular combination of physical factors like climate, water and food supplies, natural resources, large-scale natural formations (rivers, mountains), and so on. These factors set boundaries as to what different tribal societies can and cannot do. Through culture, humans bring the world of nature within the world of culture, culturising and integrating it into the cultural system. In the process, both culture and ecology are mutually reshaped. The biggest problem for humans, is and will always be how to transform their environment in providing their needs to support their life, thus how they will become economic.
Eller explains that it is the economic system that makes contact with the Earth and its resources and converts them into human-usable goods. At any rate, a society’s life begins with its practical, productive activities, which may be referred to as its mode of production. The mode of production includes all the tasks, tools, knowledge and skills that humans use to get their daily bread. Humans must engage in productive, practical, material activity in order to survive. Work cannot be done in social isolation.
Systems of Production
Human ecology shaped the pattern of the culture of all people including tribal societies. Anthropology has identified four different environmental variations of human ecology, for the production of basic goods and services, in light of culture, two of which will be looked upon in detail hereunder. Each societal variation generates a particular constellation of common cultural characteristics, although each is also diverse.
Also known as foraging, hunter-gathering was the first human economic system, chronologically and conceptually, that all humans practiced and depended on. Hunter-gatherers were nomads of a low, self-sufficient population that made use of simple economic resources where full-time craft speciation was absent and minimal technologies were used to acquire food and other goods through a combination of hunting animals and collecting plants. The capital outcome was limited with the absence of surplus and trade leading to informal political leadership with weak leaders. Hunting and gathering are two different ways of adapting to the environment depending on the climate. This also has a large effect on social structure and economy.
Although different tribes of hunter-gatherers are widely dispersed throughout the world they share a common belief. Since they depend on the natural habitat, animals, and weather to sustain their lives, they have become unified with nature. Examples of recent and well-known foraging societies include the Australian Aboriginal societies, and the various Inuit or Eskimo peoples of the Arctic. Nature is considered as sacred, the forest is so divine and since they are very dependent on it, they highly respect it.
Division of labor
Foraging included the “work” of hunting and of gathering, two distinct skills or methods of food provision. This implies a potential division of labor between the hunting/animal work and the gathering/plant work among the hunter-gatherers. Close cooperation is essential.
In the case of the San, territory is shared within the band and if one leaves he/she still has the right to a share of the land. This “shared” concept results in equality between male and female hunter-gatherers. This arrangement also existed in the Warlpiri in the Central Desert of Australia who tended to follow the pattern of male hunting and female gathering. Because women’s labor often produced a large proportion (if not the majority) of the group’s food, there tended to be relative gender equality in foraging societies. In fact, they tended to be generally egalitarian, due to the inability of any individual to accumulate a surplus or to possess skills that other people did not.
Foraging environments often prohibited economic surpluses, since there was not enough food available to accumulate it, and foraging culture usually discouraged a person from trying to become superior to or richer than anyone else; values of sharing within the community provided no opportunity to hoard personal wealth.
Local groups, especially in marginal environments, tended to be small and ordinarily composed of kin. There was simply not enough supplies to support large populations thus the society was accordingly dispersed over a large territory and would only assemble as one in times of a plentiful produce or for special occasions like rituals. Groups tended to be mobile, moving continuously in search of provisions. They may have lacked permanent houses, but they migrated within an established “range” or territory so, they could still have a sense of “home area” but one within which they circulated constantly. They might stop (or “sit,” as the Warlpiri say) in one place so long as resources permitted, but the general ethos of society was a mobile one. Concepts of “ownership” or “private property” were often limited if not lacking.
Outlook on life
One common misconception about foragers is that they were poor and miserable, living on the edge of starvation. There were times of hardship in their history, however surprisingly, they tended to have a very positive attitude toward their lives and environments. Traditional food collecting took up a few hours a day, a few days a week; the rest of the time spent socializing, doing ritual “business,” or merely napping.
Since generosity and equality were the general rules, the place of war and violence was limited. Therefore, foragers tended to be quite peaceful people. They did have conflicts and violent outbursts but these usually occurred over ritual concerns or marriage and were usually settled ritually.
Finally, because the life of foragers was so “close to the ground,” they tended to have a major emotional and “spiritual” connection to their environment. For many, the land itself was alive thus spiritual. They may have had “totemic” or other social relations between human individuals or groups and other natural beings or forces. They often regarded themselves and their cultures as essentially autochthonous – that is, rising up out of the ground they inhabited – like the Warlpiri, who believe that their personal spirit or “soul” comes from the spiritual power in the earth and returns there when they die.
Another economic system to evolve entailing the production of domesticated plants is known as horticulture. Tropical horticulture is a branch of horticulture that studies and cultivates plants in the tropics, i.e., the equatorial regions of the world. ‘Swidden’ is the key ecological adaptation, having high effects on economy. It is a form of garden agriculture. This does not mean there is ecological determination of people, but on the contrary, there is room for human creativity, free will. There is no way you can assume ecology gives us our beliefs, there is room for change.
Horticulture may be defined as farming without the use of technologies like the plow, irrigation, fertilizer, or draft animals. Based on low-technology farming or gardening, this was once practiced in a wider variety of climate types but has recently been found most often in hilly inland areas and tropical environments, like the rainforests of New Guinea or the Amazon, where soils are actually relatively thin. Even though, heavy rains can damage fragile soils, growth rates are fairly high, such that displaced wild vegetation can quickly recover.
The tropical rain-forests that horticulturalists inhabit are tough environments for cultivation due to the uproar of trees and little sunshine penetrating them. Horticulturalists have adapted to this ecological restraint by deforesting, cultivating the land, burning it, leaving it to fallow then move onto a new piece of land this is known as swidden cultivation.
Division of labor
The self-sufficient local groups practised division of labour according to age, sex and speciation leading to more money contributions and part time political leadership.
Tropical horitculturists learnt a lot about the soil mainly that they had to give it chance to rest or else it would degenerate. The forest is so big and so dense, taking a lot of cooperation to cut down the trees. There is a very strong emphasis on the group. The lineage is crucial most especially in the ways in which people train their descent. The clan is very important. Horticultural labor consisted of a sequence of stages which might be assigned to members in various ways; one common division of labor was to have men do the heavy work of clearing the land and women the subsequent work of planting and harvesting.
Unlike hunter-gathers, horticulturalist families must own more land than needed to be able to cultivate one garden and harvest another. Owning more land means being able to own more surplus of wild pigs, as with the Maring case, which reflects a man’s capital. Having more than one wife and children contributes to the labour of the gardens and is therefore beneficial to the man. (reflecting gender inequality).
The Semai of Malaysia were an example of this classic pattern where women and children slashed the trees before the men chopped them down; then the men and boys made the planting holes, and the women and children followed behind placing the seeds in the holes (Dentan 1968).
The relationship with and productivity of the land also affected settlement or mobility. Some societies built fairly permanent villages and farmed the land in the vicinity on some kind of rotation. Property is a strong collective idea for tropical horticulturists where everyone has a place and there is social security. A horticultural community would need to have a number of territories in various states of readiness, from “in production” to recently burnt to recently slashed to fallow. After two or three harvests, the fertility of the land was often depleted, and it was necessary to allow it to “return to nature,” only to be slashed and burned again in the future. Among the Semai there was no permanent ownership of land; the “owner” of a tract was simply the person or family who cleared and currently used it. If they abandoned or simply neglected it for too long, others would move in and occupy it (but still not acquire “title” to it); the same was true of houses.
Outlook on life
The Maring, even though they are divided into subgroups, share ideas and common beliefs during and after warfare. As one can see through the tribal world, it is indisputably evident how the ecological setting of these tribes in question has effected their cultural ways.
The most important idea is ancestor worship. The elders of the lineage perform rituals to the ancestors if there is any problem in the clan ex. a drought. Cultural values like gender stratification and violence were diverse. The Iroquois (eastern North America) represented one of the most female-centered societies on record. The Sambia, on the other hand, maintained tense and profoundly unequal, even segregated, relations between the sexes.
The weaknesses or vulnerabilities of horticulture were compensated by the new opportunities it offered like; cultural elaboration – specialization. A small number of people could be “freed” from food production due to the surplus that others created. These people could practice other activities and develop new skills and techniques, including pottery and metalworking as well as more full-time religious and artistic roles. The “blacksmith” or iron-worker in particular often played not only an important economic but a ritual role in society. In addition to these seminal technologies, other arts and crafts like weaving, priestcraft and teaching were possible with the economic surplus.
Nowadays, hunter gatherers have adapted to geographical regions which have shaped their everyday life, social structure and organisation. The San of South Africa, as a result of their permanent settlement and geographic region, requires the males to travel and hunt. The field of horticulture has many devoted researchers and academics. The International Society for Horticultural Science located in Leuven, Belgium, sponsors international horticultural congresses every four years.
Human ecology is a science aimed toward the future as it seeks to implement new sustainable strategies to balance human systems with environmental systems. When this is seen in light of different cultures around the world, mainly in the hunter-gathering and tropical horticultural societies as seen in this essay, it can prove why until now there has not been a global catastrophe.