History of cultural ecology theory

History of cultural ecology theory

Cultural ecology was first developed by Julian Steward following the development of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution that tied human evolution to the environment. Cultural ecology theory holds the belief that culture is influenced by the physical and biological characteristics of the area wherein it is developed (Sutton and Anderson 210:10-15). This essay describes the history of cultural ecological theory, its applications in archaeology and criticisms it faces from social scientists.

Culture influences human development, which in turn dictates how humans interact with the environment (Preucel and Mrozowski 2010:53-56). In order to substantiate this fact, it has been proven that nutrition influences human development. The human growth and development depends on the type of food consumed. Nutrition on the other hand is directly influenced by culture and therefore, it cannot be denied that environment influences human development and hence culture.

The second evidence of relationship between culture, environment and human development is that the process of nature such as weather, climate and natural forces influences the way human beings interact with the environment and hence the beliefs they hold in such environment (Kay 1977:477-495). People who live in different climates certainly have different cultural practices with respect to food, social and political organizations.

It is a generally accepted knowledge among scientists that biological evolution and natural selection are two influential forces that shape organisms. According to biological evolution and the concept of natural selection, the growth and development of an organism is influenced by its nature CITATION Ste95 l 1033 (Julian, Theory of culture change: Methodology of multilinear evolution, 1995).

Ecological studies largely involve human diet and subsistence. Subsistence is a list of foods together with resources, technology, social and political organizations. Subsistence is closely related to culture. Cultural groups also influence the ecological properties by exploitation of resources and the use of technology. Cultural theory, therefore, states that the forms of interactions above are perpetual and key to a culture’s evolution CITATION Ste77 l 1033 (Julian, Evolution and Ecology: Essays on Social transformations, 1977).

Since the conception of the theory, other anthropologists have broadened the definition of the phrase ‘cultural ecology to encompass abstract ideas such as political and social economy that are used to study the concept of power and resources (Ellen 1982). Political and social concepts were developed from subsistence.

Actual applications of the theory in the interpretation of archaeological data

Using cultural ecology theory, archaeologists have been able to develop procedural archaeology that documents the ways in which ancient cultures exploited the physical and biological characteristics of their environment (Nora and Wilk 2006). Using the past cultures and human adaptations, archaeologists have been able to predict early forms of life processes and technological practices.

The development of humans and cultures capable of building cities and creating arts are directly related to the development of brain. Therefore, the increase in brain size and complexity through time are important data of cultural and biological development (Bennet 2005). This explains why cultural ecology has become important in the archaeological work. Using the relationship between brain size, complexity and the time factor, archaeologist can figure out human characteristics through time, both past and future. In addition, using the concept of incremental growth and development in human brain and culture, archaeologists can obtain vital data in predicting the characteristics of human environment through time.

Due to the relationship between environment, culture and human environment, archaeologists have been able to infer various aspects of early life. Therefore, the concepts of cultural ecology have provided archaeologists with vital links to evidence of the past life and environment (Subedi 2013:1-4). For example, the climate influences the type of vegetation in a given environment. Vegetation on the other hand influences the distribution of animals that are part of man’s diet. Any transformations in the climate ultimately causes human beings to adopt to the new conditions and with persistence in the changes in climate, cultural development is realized (Vayda 2009).

Criticisms that have been leveled against it

The criticisms of the cultural theory emanates from its emphasis on environmental determinism. Environmental determinism arises from the statement that physical and biological environment affects culture. Such criticism emanates from social scientists who argue from Marxist’s perspective that environmental impact does not own change of human culture. Critics argue that environmental criticism dangerously oversimplifies social and cultural aspects.

The critics further claim that cultural ecology theory have a tendency to ignore the importance of and the influence of social and individual agency. The critics argue that social process is likely to contribute the cultural change of human being. Additionally, individual human traits also influence the adaptation of an individual to its environment. The influence of individual traits and social process on human interaction with the environment cannot be denied. However, on a greater scale, environment and culture have greater influence on each other as compared to smaller underlying factor such as socialization and individual traits.


Despite the criticism advanced against the theory, it is evidence that cultural ecology provides a fundamental relationship between human growth and development, culture and the environment. The humans, culture and the environment are major interactive forces that transform each other such that the criticisms advanced by social scientists, although may be true, form minor forces that participate in the transformations of environment and human culture.


Bennet, J. W.

2005 The Ecological Transition: Cultural Anthropology and Human Adaptation. Brunswick: Transaction Publishers.

The book is an interdisciplinary treatise combining anthropology, sociology and ecology with a view to formulate understanding of cultural and environmental relationships. Anthropology have been studying the human and physical environment relationship using concepts drawn from this book. Bennet’s point is the book is that a basic cultural change in the modern civilization is necessary to achieve this end. The ecological transition emphasizes relationship between human culture technology, physical environment and social policies.

Ellen, R.

1982 Environment, Subsistence and System: The Ecology of Small-Scale Social Formations. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Roy Ellen’s main argument in this book is that human ecology is the ultimate component of a general theory of society. Ellen’s exploration of the relationship between social organization and ecology in small-scale subsistence systems leads to the investigation of human environmental relations on contemporary social theory.

Julian, S.

1977 Evolution and Ecology: Essays on Social transformations. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

In this book, Julian strives to link human cultural adaptations and the physical environment. His arguments on social transformation enrich social science and provide intellectual references t the lovers of the study of human adaptation.

Julian, S.

1995 Theory of culture change: Methodology of multilinear evolution. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

In this book, Julian argues persuasively that cultural transformation is made up of complex, continuous processes that are not isolate acts of unitary character. The book presents concepts and methods required to develop a general methodology for determining evidences in the relationships between cultural patterns and processes of cultural change.

Kay, M.

1977) Ecologies: Anthropology, Culture and the Environment. In International Social Sciences, 477-495.

In this article, Milton describes how anthropological studies of human-environment have developed over the years. The article also discusses the significance of the study to the current public and global debate on environmental issues. In this book, we find a great deal of knowledge and concepts on the relationships between human culture and environment as argued from different participants in the quest of the interrelationship.

Nora, H., & Wilk, R.

2006 The Environment in Anthropology: A Reader is Ecology, Culture and Sustainable Living. New York: New York University Press.

This book describes ecology and current environmental studies from the point of view of anthropology. It clinks the theory and practice in environment to anthropology thereby providing readers with strong intellectual foundation besides offering practical tools for solving environmental problems.

Preucel, R. W., & Mrozowski, S. A.

2010 Contemporary Archaeology in Theory: The New Pragmatism. Chichester: John Wiley & Sons.

This book reveals the relevance of archaeology and social sciences to the modern world. It also questions the traditional boundaries between prehistoric and historic archaeologies. Moreover, it discusses how archaeology presents such contemporary topics and issues such as landscape and natures; agency, memory and historical silence; meaning and practice, sexuality; heritage, and social justice; race, class and ethnicity; embodiment and personhood; maternity, colonialism, and empire, media, museums, and publics.

Subedi, D. P.

2013, October 30 Cultural Ecological Perspective to the study of Society. Retrieved from Academia.edu: http://www.academia.edu/1862433/Cultural_Ecological_Perspective_to_the_study_of_SocietyThis article investigates the relationship between a society and its environment together with life forms and ecosystems that support it. It main argument is that he natural environment is a major contributor to social organization and basis for other human institutions.

Sutton, M. Q., & Anderson, E. ..

2010 Introduction to Cultural Ecology. United Kingdom: AltaMira Press.

The book comprehensively presents relationships between humans and their environment. It describes the challenges the past man faced in quest for survival and the cultural responses, adaptations and innovations developed to overcome the challenges.

Vayda, A. P.

2009 Explaining Human Actions and Environment Changes. Lanham, Maryland: AltaMira Press.

Andrew presents, in this essay, a pragmatic treatise of social and environmental science. His argument is supported by evidences of human actions including cutting trees and competing over resources together with environmental challenges for example forest fires. His presentation is evidence based as opposed to wider generalizations and theories without adequate substantiation.