The Engineered Earth

By Keith Kloor | April 19, 2010 10:30 am

The issue of human-manufactured biodiversity is controversial. After all, if humans are overrunning nature and degrading the vital ecosystem services that we depend on, isn’t it rather beside the point if we also inadvertently boost biodiversity on some landscapes?

I don’t think so. More environmentalists need to realize that the boundaries between pristine nature and civilization grow fuzzier by the day. The latest example is a new, intriguing study on pre-Columbian agriculture in the Amazon, published last week in PNAS.

This is the kind of stuff that makes my geeky heart flutter: interdisciplinary research on how ancient farmers engineered their environment in a part of the world that most people today consider primordial nature. Additionally, these findings hold important contemporary ecological lessons, as the study’s abstract explains:

The profound alteration of ecosystem functioning in these landscapes coconstructed by humans and nature has important implications for understanding Amazonian history and biodiversity. Furthermore, these landscapes show how sustainability of food-production systems can be enhanced by engineering into them fallows that maintain ecosystem services and biodiversity. Like anthropogenic dark earths in forested Amazonia, these self-organizing ecosystems illustrate the ecological complexity of the legacy of pre-Columbian land use.

In a nice write-up of the study, New Scientist interviews Doyle McKey, the lead researcher, who says:

Human actions cannot always be characterised as bad for biodiversity. Some might be good.

That’s one of those inconvenient truths that purists who subscribe to the human/nature dualism don’t like to hear. But science has come a long way since the publication of George Perkin Marsh’s seminal text.  The increasing collaboration between archaeologists and ecologists is revealing an ancient world that discomfits doctrinaire environmentalists. (In the American Southwest, I’ve written about one such collaboration here.)

Moreover, as the New Scientist article puts it:

The new study is bound to further fuel the debate over whether most of the Amazon rainforest and the associated savannahs are pristine ecosystem.   “To my mind, the debate has been too black-and-white,” says McKey. “Nature and culture are interacting to produce interesting things, and maybe that is the way this debate should go.”

Seems like good advice to me.

  • http://spiriteaglehome.com oso loco

    It was interesting to go to your article and immediately recognize the location of the photo.   I’ve spent some time at Agua Fria – and have (but have not yet published) a series of photos, including some of the red deer. 

    I also found it interesting, after being told repeatedly that the occupants of Perry Mesa ( and, indeed, the Southwest in general) did not find a need for defensive works, to find what was obviously a fortified defensive position.  But then, that’s not the only location that I’ve found such things.  :)

    Thank you for the reference.

  • Keith Kloor

    Yeah, I’ve been told that too. As you may have figured out by now, there’s some serious divisions among southwestern archaeologists on the exact nature of those obviously (to me, anyway) defensive structures.

    David Wilcox has some very interesting ideas on Agua Fria, notably the Verde Confederacy, which you can read about generally here.

    Teofilo, who writes the smartest archaeology blog I know of, can probably expound more on this. Maybe he’ll jump in. He’s always got something incisive to say on these matters. (Unfortunately, all the professional archaeologists who read this blog are either too blog-averse or too busy to weigh in.)

  • http://gamblershouse.wordpress.com/ teofilo

    Southwestern archaeologists, at least, do seem pretty blog-averse.

    And yeah, the presence of warfare in the Southwest has been a big controversial issue for a while now.  I think at this point most archaeologists will at least grudgingly acknowledge some evidence for warfare, but only a few really make a big deal out of it.  David Wilcox is one, Steven LeBlanc (who wrote a whole book on the subject) is another, and Steve Lekson is generally aligned with this point of view as well.  It’s kind of odd that the idea of the “peaceful Pueblo people,” which seems to have developed out of ethnographic work in the early twentieth century as amplified by a certain tendency toward romanticization among non-academics at the time, took hold so vigorously among archaeologists by the end of the century.  The evidence in LeBlanc’s book is pretty convincing, and it was noted by the early archaeologists who first investigated the sites in question.  They didn’t see any problem with interpreting Southwestern prehistory as including a fair amount of warfare.  Post-contact Southwestern history was certainly violent.

  • http://collide-a-scape.com Keith Kloor

    Teofilo,

    Okay, I’m not letting you off on this one: It’s kind of odd that the idea of the “peaceful Pueblo people,” which seems to have developed out of ethnographic work in the early twentieth century as amplified by a certain tendency toward romanticization among non-academics at the time, took hold so vigorously among archaeologists by the end of the century.

    And why do you think this was? (And we wonder why southwestern archaeologists are blog averse. Heh.)

    C’mon, I just threw you a big fat one down the middle.

  • http://gamblershouse.wordpress.com/ teofilo

    I’m actually genuinely unsure how it became entrenched to the extent it did among archaeologists specifically.  Among ethnographers it had a lot to do with the tendency a lot of them had toward an idealistic socialism that saw the Pueblos as a model for how a society could live in communal egalitarian harmony, which of course led them to largely ignore all the evidence suggesting that Pueblo societies were in fact neither egalitarian nor harmonious.  Then in the sixties and seventies, the romanticization of Indians from an ecological perspective as “living in harmony with nature” got mixed in among the general public.  That was at the same time that processualism, with its focus on cultural adaptation to natural environments, was on the rise in archaeology, so I guess there’s was a sort of convergence of trends that led Southwestern archaeologists to downplay and ignore evidence for violence.  I do still find it odd that so many Southwestern archaeologists became so resistant to arguments for warfare; it doesn’t seem like anything similar happened in any other area.  But then, other areas had very different archaeological and ethnographic traditions.

    I think we’re seeing a similar process unfolding now in a different direction with post-processualism and the “collapse” literature.  Suddenly it’s no longer about peaceful people living in harmony with nature and the lessons they can teach us, but about “how societies choose to succeed or fail” and the lessons they can teach us.

  • http://collide-a-scape.com Keith Kloor

    Thanks for that excellent chronology. I agree with your latter point, about the ” collapse” meme being all the rage. However, my understanding is that this too is quite controversial among archaeologists–with many of them even reflexively opposed to the idea.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t this “collapse” argument advanced more by ecologists than anyone else–along the “carrying capacity” lines?

  • http://gamblershouse.wordpress.com/ teofilo

    I don’t know from ecologists, and it does seem to be controversial among at least some archaeologists, but at least in the Southwest pretty much everyone seems to be on some version of the Collapse bandwagon.  Unlike in some other places used as examples of collapse, the evidence for something disastrous happening in the thirteenth century, with huge social changes both preceding and following it, is just too obvious to be argued away.  Huge areas were totally depopulated, etc.  The concept of carrying capacity is actually frequently invoked in the Southwest, where it makes more sense than in places with more inviting environments.  It’s the basis for LeBlanc’s theory of warfare, for example.

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Collide-a-Scape

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About Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a NYC-based journalist, a senior editor at Cosmos magazine, and adjunct professor of journalism at New York University. His work has appeared in Slate, Science, Discover, and the Washington Post magazine, among other outlets. From 2000 to 2008, he was a senior editor at Audubon Magazine. In 2008-2009, he was a Fellow at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism, in Boulder, where he studied how a changing environment (including climate change) influenced prehistoric societies in the U.S. Southwest. He covers a wide range of topics, from conservation biology and biotechnology to urban planning and archaeology.

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