Cultural Ecology Specialty Group of the Association of American Geographers

Cultural Ecology Newsletter

(CEN #33 -- Spring '99)

Editor: Simon Batterbury

Last Updated: April 8th, 1999

  • 1999 Netting Award
  • William M. Denevan - a testimonial
  • 1999 Award Winners
  • Honolulu AAG meetings
  • Announcements
  • Meeting Report
  • Members News
  • Book Reviews

  • The 1999 Robert McC. Netting Award

    The 1999Robert McC. Netting Award for a lifetime of achievement in cultural ecology goes to KARL BUTZER, Raymond C. Dickson Centennial Professor of Liberal Arts at the University of Texas, Austin.

    William M. Denevan

    A testimonal on Bill Denevan, winner of the 1998 Robert McC.Netting Award, is available. By Gregory Knapp, University of Texas, Austin. Click Here

    1999 Student Paper and Field Award Winners

    Student Paper Award

    The 1999 Student Paper Award was made to Thomas Perreault (Dept. of Geography, University of Colorado-Boulder, Boulder, CO) for a paper on indigenous organizations and identity construction in Ecuadorian Amazonia.

    Field Study Award

    The CESG committee awarded the 1999 Field Study Award to William Moseley (Dept. of Geography, The University of Georgia, Athens, GA).

    Well done to the winners and thankyou to all those who took part. These are annual awards, described here.

    The Honolulu AAG meetings, 1999Hawaii

    The Honolulu meetings of the AAG took place from 23rd March-27th March 1999. Although overall participation in the meeting was down on previous 'mainland' events, particularly in the number of graduate students attending, the numbers of cultural ecology and 'nature-society' presentations were high. Click below for the full list: contact the authors for more information. Several individuals were spotted taking well-earned vacations on the islands prior to and following the meetings - with Kauai being a popular destination!

    Click here for a list of sessions presented.


    Email Discussion Group for Ecological Anthropology

    The American Anthropological Association has set up an E-mail discussion Group for Ecological Anthropology. At last count it had over 350 members, mainly anthropologists and a few practitioners and other interested members. In the absence of our own email group, please join this one. It is simple! Details available at


    Is an on-line database of career opportunities (including post-docs and temporary appointments) for geographers, geoscientists, environmental scientists, space/planetary scientists, remote sensing/GIS staff, climate/atmospheric scientists, archaeologists, soil scientists, oceanographers, ecologists, geotechnical engineers, petroleum scientists/engineers and hydrologists/hydrogeologists with particular focus on the UK, Europe, the Pacific Rim, North America and Africa.

    Society for Human Ecology

    The Society for Human Ecology, based in Canada, publishes the Human Ecology Review, a peer-reviewed journal of interest to members. Their Tenth International Conference, entitled "Living with the Land:  Interdisciplinary Research for Adaptive Decision Making" was held in Montreal from May 27-30, 1999. For details contact Thom Meredith, First Vice President, Society for Human Ecology, Department of Geography, McGill University,  Montreal, PQ, Canada, H3A 2K6. Fax: (1) (514) 398-7437. Email:

    Conference of the Society for Ethnobiology

    The 22nd Annual conference was held from March 10-13, 1999 at the Jardín Etnobotánico, Centro Cultural Santo Domingo, Oaxaca, México. In the U.S. and Canada, please contact: Mollie S. Toll, Office of Archaeological Studies, Museum of New Mexico, Box 2087, Santa Fe NM 87504-2087, USA Tel.: (505) 827-6343 fax: (505) 827-3904. In México, please contact: Alejandro de Avila, Jardín de Etnobotánico, A.P. 367, Oaxaca, C.P. 68000, México, tel. & fax: 011-52-951-6 79 15. More information is available on the web at

    Conference: "Society, Nature and History. Long Term Dynamics of Social Metabolism".

    This conference will be held from Sept. 30th - 2nd Oct. 1999 in Vienna, Austria. It is hosted by the Institute of Interdisciplinary Studies of Austrian Universities. It will discuss issues of long term societal transformation, with a special emphasis on the last 200 years, from a social-ecological perspective, focussing on the energetic and material exchange relations between societies and their natural environment. A conference volume with the keynote-lectures, and journal issues of the papers from the symposia will be published. Eminent speakers and chairs are participating. For further information see and then proceed via "news" to "conferences". Also contact Dr. Verena Winiwarter at IFF - Seidengasse 13 A - 1070 Vienna, Austria.

    Conference: Patterns and Processes of Land Use and Forest Change in the Amazon

    The 48th Annual Conference Sponsored by the Center for Latin American Studies University of Florida. Dates: March 23-26, 1999, on the campus of the University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida. The conference presented findings of state-of-the-art research projects on land use and land cover change in the Amazon. Further information: (go to the Annual Conference link) or contact Charles H. Wood, Director Center for Latin American Studies Tel.: (352) 392-0375 or Roberto Porro, Ph.D. Student, Department of Anthropology

    AAG contact list

    Richard Marston is secretary of the AAG. He is compiling a "Contact List" of geographers for use by teachers, students, community colleges, government officials, consulting companies and private industry, and the media. The eventual goal of the project is to have a contact list of geographers, cross-indexed by state and by specialty, available on the AAG's web site. For each member willing to participate, their specialty and a means of contacting them would be listed. This project is designed to help implement the ties between geographers and society as promoted by AAG Past Presidents Pat Gober and Will Graf. Participation is entirely voluntary. Members of CESG should to respond by 20 February to the following questions: 1. Are you willing to participate in the AAG Contact List Project? 2. Please state your name and specialty (using AAG specialty group names only). 3. If you are willing to participate, which of the following would you like to have listed as a means by which you could be contacted: mailing address? phone number? fax number? e-mail address? Please send responses to Oliver Coomes ( who will compile them and forward them to Richard Marston.

    Meeting Report

    'Constructivism and Realism in Environment and Development'

    Tim Forsyth, IDS, Sussex, UK (from Jan-May 1999) and

    This seminar was held at the LSE in London, on December 7th 1998. The organizers were Tim Forsyth (IDS, Sussex) and John Harris (LSE).

    The seminar reflected on some of the philosophical positions underlying research on environment-development linkages. Four key sessions dealt with (a) developments in political ecology (b) the so-called 'New' Ecologies, offering a more complex understanding of biophysical reality than linear, equilibrium-based explanations; (c) understanding 'dominant' discourses; and (d) realist and critical realist attempts at explanation.

    In session 1, John Harriss introduced the day by discussing key trends in political ecology since Piers Blaikie's 'Political Economy of Soil Erosion' was published in 1985. It was suggested that trends since then have established poststructural ways of identifying environmental change, and that others (notably Peet and Watts in 'Liberation Ecologies', 1996) have argued that the treatment of politics has also become more stringent. Blaikie was not able to attend, but Michael Thompson outlined Cultural Theory and recent debates about the governance of risk. Thompson illustrated the political and acrimonious nature of debates between 'realists' and 'constructivists' involved in theoretical understanding of human behavior, and challenged whether a 'constructivist' approach may create more democratic actions and forms of knowledge. His Cultural Theory posits that humans have different social solidarities: 'egalitarianism' (which promotes equality, and efforts to attain it); 'individualism' (promoting self interest); 'hierarchicalism' (promoting elite or state-centered control); and 'fatalism' (what will happen, will happen...). Researchers need to acknowledge that these positions will be manifested in diferent forms in most societies they study, and that they give rise to different behaviors. A power struggle goes on between the different solidarities, as well as between the environmental realities or the predictions they create.

    In session 2, Ian Scoones outlined the essentials of the so-called 'new' ecologies, or non-equilibrium ecology. He argued that, over time, historic 'laws' of ecology had been fabricated to reflect scientific agendas in particular localities. 'New ecology' challenges these, in five areas: units of measurement; implications for understanding temporal change (i.e. which baselines do we use?); the use of statistics the average, or indices of variation?); understanding based on hierarchies and non-linear questions of scale; and new visions of the dynamics of change (including consideration of multiple stable states, uncertainty and surprise). The topic of 'surprise' -- or the transition from one stable state to another, or the advent of an extreme event -- seems particularly useful in accounting for shifting human-environment relationships. The debate focused on some of the problems human scientists have in identifying with the lengthier biophysical timescales that are appropriate for environmental explanation. The session concluded that - despite the obvious need for physical scientists to become more aware of social and political analysis - there were also new developments in biophysical sciences, and ecology, that made many debates in sociology and politics somewhat out of touch with the latest physical understandings of how ecosystems operate.

    The third session focused on the construction of so-called 'environmental orthodoxies' or dominant discourses, based on a paper by James Fairhead and Melissa Leach. Their work looks at how 'citizen science' can counter established 'scientific' pronouncements on biophysical reality, and particularly the erronous belief that forest areas have been decreasing in parts of West Africa during the last 100 years. Their evidence indicates that, in fact, some forest areas have been increasing in their extent because of human actions. How can this information be used to correct national and international policies that assume forests have been declining, and that local people are to blame? Debate focused on the factors that lead to the 'reification' of science in this way, and the historic identification of the agendas of science that then become translated into 'facts' in institutions that carry out policy. The concept of 'falsification' was discussed. It was suggested that researchers need to acknowledge discussions in the philosophy of science that distinguish between 'propositional' (or 'brute') claims (such as 'is deforestation increasing?' ) and 'institutional' truth claims (such as 'can people prevent deforestation'?). It was proposed that it might be possible to 'falsify' some overtly incorrect propositional truth claims, but not the 'institutional' truths. The latter are like 'storylines', and hence cannot be falsified. We need to ask whether some apparent storylines are actually based on correctly identified 'propositional' truths coming from science and other sources. Some common statements, such as 'fires destroy biodiversity' (often heard when Indonesia was ablaze, recently) actually contradict what many respected ecologists know about the nature and evolution of biodiversity, and -- importantly -- lead to repressive land-use policies forbidding the use of fire by small farmers.

    The last session focused on attempts to adopt realist or critical realist interpretations of environmental change, and possible methodologies. Tim Forsyth introduced this session by discussing work in Thailand that compared the biophysical evidence for two overt 'storylines' concerning the impact of upland shifting cultivation on lowland sedimentation and water shortages. Evidence -- collected among the uplanders, and at a small village-scale -- suggested that they did not cultivate steep slopes as assumed, and that many deep gullies found in the area were actually features of the granite terrain and predated the origin of agriculture in the region. He suggested this represented a case of 'hybrid science' because it used different knowledge sources to assess complex institutional truth claims in order to gain a deeper level of understanding. This was not, however, to suggest that this information was in any way separate from the political project to support the claims of the uplanders, or that the explanation created was a clear indication of 'external reality'. This approach , it was felt, retained a veneer of positivistic 'truth claim' by its use of scientific methods in a sensible way. Gaining better scientific information to refute accusations made against shifting cultivators needs to be combined with increasing their political power more generally, so as to diminish the force of these accusations.

    Some key themes :

  • Debate swung between those who saw different versions of environmental explanation as a) reflecting the different power bases of different discourses (storylines, or the Cultural Theory 'myths' of nature); and b) those who believed that more information, and more science, could be deployed to influence and move forward the 'facts' behind these storylines.
  • Dominating discourses about the environment may be 'falsified'. Falsifying one truth claim (for example, that deforestation has increased uniformly across West Africa) can assist in the creation of better environmental policy for local land users, but it does not claim to establish universal truths in its stead.
  • There are still many points of disagreement. Cultural Theorists argue that the creation and institutionalisation of environmental knowledge can be explained by the interface of the four solidarities of society. Poststructuralist theorists, in general, point to the different actor networks and powers behind 'discourse coalitions'. Thirdly, post-empiricist scientists (and, probably, cultural ecologists) optimistically hope that a better form of debate may be achieved through including and demonstrating the extent of new knowledge claims.
  • Three interpretations of the word 'democratisation', and its desirability, seemed to be apparent: (i) democratisation of political representation, ie broadening those included in the political process of science and policy debate (a view held by the discourse theorists); (ii) democratisation of science and knowledge, ie what information, and from whom, is used to create expert knowledge? (the post-empiricist's position); and (iii) a democratisation of 'perspectives', ie. the ability to acknowledge the generating mechanisms behind attempts to create knowledge and to manage the environment (a Cultural Theory position).

    The debate continues!

    Members' News

    William Woods, Southern Illinois University has presented the 1999 Paul Simon Outstanding Scholar Award to William Woods. Woods is a professor of Geography at SIU, Edwardswille and his work concerns prehistoric settlement-subsistence systems, soils, and palaeolandscapes. He is best known for his work on the pre-Columbian (ca. AD800-1350) Cahokia Mounds located east of St. Louis into Illinois -- the largest prehistoric site in the United States. He has been working on a diachronic reconstruction of the Cahokia landscape since 1984. Additional studies have been made of the origins and genesis of 'black soils' (terra preta) in the Amazon Basin. The award, named after the US Senator of that name, is for original research that feeds into teaching excellence.

    B.L.Turner II of Clark University reports that the LCLUC-SYPR (Land-Cover and Land-Use Change in the Southern Yucatan Peninsular Region) project has now gone live on the web. This is a large multifunded project linking historical, econometric, ecological, and remote sensing approaches to understanding land dynamics in Mexico. It involves cultural ecologists, and ties Clark University, Harvard Forest, and ECOSUR (Mexico) in an integrative project design. Two years into the project, sufficient progress has been made to warrant a 50 slide presentation which may be found at by following the pathway from the home page to research to "latest project status report." The project illustrates that geographers can and should play central roles in "big science" that contribute to the research themes defined by the broader academy beyond geography and cultural ecology.

    Carolyn Cartier (assistant professor, University of Oregon) has been appointed Assistant Professor of Geography, University of Southern California.

    David Demeritt (lecturer, Bristol University, UK) has been appointed lecturer, Department of Geography, King's College London, UK where he joins Prof. Michael Redclift(Professor, Keele), Raymond Bryant, Noel Castree (lecturer, Liverpool) and Anna Davies (Cambridge) in an expanded human-environment research group.

    Leslie C. Gray (post-doc, University of California, Berkeley) has been appointed Assistant Professor Environmental Studies and Political Science, Santa Clara University from January 2000.

    Hong Jiang, (assistant professor, University of Iowa) has been appointed Assistant Professor of Geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

    Rheyna Laney, (student, Clark University) has been appointed Assistant Professor of Geography at Sonoma State University.

    Juanita Sundberg (student, University of Texas) has been appointed Assistant Professor of Geography at the University of British Columbia.

    Antoinette Winklerprins (student, Wisconsin-Madison) has been appointed post-doc at ITC, the Netherlands and from 2000, Assistant Professor of Geography at Michigan State University.

    Lastly Simon Batterbury (lecturer, Brunel University, UK), has been appointed Lecturer in Development Studies, London School of Economics, UK.

    Book Reviews

    All CESG members, and others, are invited to submit reviews of books that would be of interest to our Specialty Group. Publishers are invited to send books to the Editor, and willing reviewers are sought.

    Balée, William L. (ed). 1998. Advances in Historical Ecology. ISBN: 0-231-10632-7 $65.00. New York: Columbia University Press
    Reviewed by Thomas Dietz, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, George Mason University*

    Historical ecology is the label for the latest approach to human ecology in anthropology and kindred disciplines. This volume of twenty contributions grew from a conference in 1994 at Tulane University intended to explore recent work attempting to develop this approach. The editor and contributors are to be commended for producing an unusually rich and well integrated volume that serves as a good introduction to the historical ecology approach. In addition, they provide a number of careful theoretical arguments and detailed case studies that clarify the benefits of the historical ecology approach.

    What is historical ecology? While a number of the papers engage this question, the clearest explication may be found in a chapter by Bettinger who places historical ecology in its historical context. For Bettinger historical ecology is an effort to preserve some of the best insights of the cultural ecology of Julian Steward while moving beyond some of the unrealistic equilibrium assumptions of what has come to called "evolutionary ecology." Steward emphasized the idea of a culture core and thus the importance of technology in understanding human ecology. The evolutionary ecology school takes from Steward the importance of subsistence activities, but adds assumptions from sociobiology that observed human behavior is an optimal foraging strategy for finding the most nutritional reward for the least effort. The problem with the evolutionary ecology approach is that it assumes a sort of "ethnographic present." The human adaptations observed in the field are assumed to have been in place long enough that natural selection has yielded an optimal strategy, and thus we can understand variation in adaptive strategies across human groups by understanding how differing environments will favor different strategies. In this regard, evolutionary ecology is quite coherent conventional micro- economics that assumes rational choice based on perfect information and markets in equilibrium.

    Such an ahistorical approach cannot be justified. Things change. A central theme in most of the papers is that current modes of living are contingent on the history of the group being studied. It may be unusual for a human group to live in the same place using the same mode of adaptation for centuries let alone millennia. Of course, the spread of trade and colonialism may have accelerated these changes over the last 5 centuries, so it is hard to know if earlier history, for which data are quite limited, was more stable and more likely to approach an equilibria.

    Historical ecology focuses on the complex history of the interactions between human groups and their environment. In his introduction, Balée notes that the historical ecology approach emphasizes that humans have routinely reshaped their biophysical environment--sometimes intentionally and sometimes not. Sometimes this interaction leads to stable, sustainable systems, sometimes it leads to environmental changes that are not sustainable. Non-industrial societies cannot be assumed to be either, as Balée puts it, Homo destructivist or Ecologically Noble Savages. The task of historical ecology is to understand the human environmental dynamic in a particular landscape over time, influenced as it will be by local environmental conditions, large scale environmental change (especially climate changes), local human actions and the larger human systems that impinge on the local group and its activities.

    Thirteen of the chapters treat a local or regional case in some detail, drawing as appropriate on archaeological, historical and contemporary ethnographic data. These case studies provide a nice balance with the chapters that are largely theoretical or literature reviews and show how the historical ecology approach can yield important insights. Seven of these chapters deal with Amazonia, making the book useful to specialists in that region even if they are not especially interested in historical ecology. Two more chapters deal with Central America and two with North America, one with India and one with Thailand. I found the geographic focus an advantage of the book, as it re-enforces a rather consistent picture of an important region. There is a tendency in much writing on the Amazon basin to assume that current adaptive patterns stretch far into the past and represent some sort of equilibrium that is being disturbed only in recent decades. This is a mistake. As the excellent analyses in this volume demonstrate, the region was radically transformed by European contact and the resulting influx of disease, markets, slavery, colonialism and iron. It may be that many of the vegetation patterns often assumed to be limiting human adaptive strategies in the Amazon are at least in part a result of human action. Many chapters in the book also make clear that the border between food foraging and horticulture is a fuzzy one, that local populations may mix the two modes of subsistence, and may move in historic time from food foraging to horticulture and back again (or more correctly, that the relative importance of foraging and horticulture in subsistence strategies shifts back and forth).

    I would recommend this book most highly to any human ecologist who draws on the anthropological literature. It is a strong corrective to ahistorical over-generalization. I found only two major points of disagreement with the volume. One--too much attention to post-modern rhetoric-- results from the current state of anthropology. The other-- a neglect of the new evolutionary theory-- makes me hopeful for further synthesis.

    Many of the authors in the volume feel it necessary to deal with the "post- modern" turn that is popular in most social science disciplines. I found these discussions to be distractions from their main arguments. Some theorists labeled post-modern have important ideas to offer. For example Foucault's notions of power embedded in language has helped shape my view of cultural selection processes (Dietz and Burns 1992). But too often, what is called post-modern is at best an assertion that things are complex and culturally and historically embedded. Of course, this is a useful point. But at its worst, what passes for post-modern theory is a naïve critique of a sort of positivism that is seldom practiced in the social sciences or human ecology. And, as Posey notes in his chapter, there is an unfortunate tendency for textual exegesis to substitute for field work. The contributors to this volume offer something far richer than the typical deconstructionist critique and need not, I think, justify their work vis a vis the excesses of post-modern theory.

    A more serious shortcoming, but one that makes me hopeful for more synthetic work, is the weak handling of evolutionary ideas in the volume. Some contributors view evolution as a developmental or stage model, and strongly reject it noting the contingent character of history. They are rejecting a pre-Darwinian view of evolution and miss a real opportunity to move toward a more synthetic, historically grounded theory. For example, Whitehead (p. 36) suggests that
    "Systems, distributions and phenomena show processual or evolutionary change; humans show historical change. To try and mix these metaphors is to confuse types of analysis. In any case, it seems doubtful that the scientific representation of 'natural systems' requires in any sense an appreciation of their particular historical characteristics, for this would completely contradict the nomothetic ambitions of a generalizing endeavor."
    This is a reasonable statement if one assumes that physics, chemistry and the other experimental disciplines are the only models for science. Balée seems to share this assumption in his epilogue. But with the Darwinian revolution, we have a way of thinking that is both historical and scientific. Certainly disciplines such as evolutionary biology are as essentially historical as the work presented in this volume. As Graham notes in her chapter (p. 123) "Our mistake as anthropologists now would be to emphasize history at the expense of evolution."

    The authors of this volume seem unaware of new evolutionary theory. For example, only Bettinger cites the key work of Boyd and Richerson on the dynamics of cultural evolution. His use of what he terms "evolutionary cultural ecology (cultural-transmission version)" provides one of the richest chapters in the volume. Rival (p. 245) suggests that "we need a concept of culture that emphasizes the practical engagement of people in the world." I believe the new evolutionary theory provides such a concept. It views culture as a system of information that is subject to selective pressures in historical time**. This emerging work explicitly distances itself from stage theories and developmental approaches of which the historical ecologists are properly critical. The new evolutionary theory emphasizes micro-level processes, is comfortable with non-equilibrium dynamics and draws attention to the interplay between the material and the symbolic. It could provide a useful theoretical framework for historical ecology. In turn, historical ecology provides the rich and detailed narratives that are lacking in most of the new evolutionary work--a body of literature that can be criticized as too abstract in its concerns with conceptual frameworks and analytical models. Just as modern evolutionary theory grows from the linking of Fisherian population genetics and Darwinian natural history, so a better human ecology might emerge from the new evolutionary theory and historical ecology. But I don't mean to criticize a volume as well crafted as this for what it does not do. Advances in Historical Ecology is strong in its theoretical analyses, its synthetic reviews of the literature and its careful cases studies. I highly recommend it to all human ecologists who draw on theory and evidence from anthropology and archaeology.

    *This review appears in the Human Ecology Review, 1999.

    **Boyd and Richerson (1985), Burns and Dietz (1992), Eder (1996), Epstein and Axtell (1995) and Richerson and Boyd (1997) are examples of the new evolutionary theory.

    Boyd, R., and Richerson, P. J. 1985. Culture and the Evolutionary Process. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.
    Burns, T. R., and Dietz, T. 1992. Socio-cultural evolution: Social rule systems, selection and agency. International Sociology, 7, 259-283.
    Dietz, T., and Burns, T. R. 1992. Human agency and the evolutionary dynamics of culture. Acta Sociologica, 35, 187-200.
    Eder, K. 1996. The Social Construction of Nature. London: Sage Publications.
    Epstein, J. M., and Axtell, R. L. 1995. Growing Artificial Societies: Social Science from the Bottom Up. Washington, D.C.: The Brookings Institution.
    Richerson, P. J., and Boyd, R. 1997. Homage to Malthus, Ricardo and Boserup: Toward a general theory of population, economic growth, environmental deterioration, wealth and poverty. Human Ecology Review 5, 85-90.

    Harlan I. Smith (1997). Ethnobotany of the Gitksan Indians of British Columbia. (Canadian Ethnology Service, Mercury Series Paper 132). Hull, Quebec: Canadian Museum of Civilization. viii + 210 pp. Illustrations, Map, Bibliography, Appendixes, Index. (ISBN 0-660-15968-6)

    Nancy J. Turner (1995). Food Plants of Coastal First Peoples. (Royal British Columbia Museum Handbook). Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press. xii + 164 pp. Illustrations, Map, Appendixes, Glossary, Bibliography, Index. (ISBN 0-7748-0533-1)

    Reviewed by Douglas Deur, Department of Geography and Anthropology, Louisiana State University

    Of those literatures frequently consulted by cultural ecologists, few are as deceptively straightforward as the conventional ethnobotanies. Following a brief introduction, there is typically a list of plants, each plant accompanied by its name among the people in question and some description of its known uses. There may be variations in the plant taxonomy employed, or in the sophistication and clarity of the introduction; some may subdivide material on the basis of plant use, with sections on plants used for medicines, foods, material culture, and so forth. But regardless of the specifics, the formula is familiar and straightforward - 'this plant is used for this or that purpose'. This is is a formula that appeals to publishers - it is tidy and data-rich, and marketable to scholarly and popular audiences.

    Yet, as those who collect ethnobotanical data know all too well, there is nothing particularly straightforward about the facts that we insert into this stock format. This is particularly true for those attempting to reconstruct the practices of a people who have experienced rapid cultural change and assimilation. All of the practices we study may be in flux. Our informants may have only been exposed to small pieces of their peoples' cumulative plant lore, those fragments appropriate to someone of their gender, age, rank, occupation, or generation. Some peoples with proprietary traditions of plant use (religious or medicinal uses, for example) may not give us the whole story, or they may alter or embellish the specifics. More often, their memories simply fail.

    There are issues of time. A few weeks of harried research are scarcely sufficient to tease out ethnobotanical facts from a society that uses a diversity of plants.* But also, lurking beneath the veneer of each work describing a single, cohesive pattern of plant use, we often find data with ambiguous points of temporal reference. All too often we see informants' comments on "what I remember from my childhood," "what we do now," "what my grandparents told me about their childhood," or "what everyone says we did before white people arrived," all conflated into a single, undifferentiated account. Like a character from a Vonnegut novel, ethnobotanical narratives too often seem oddly, awkwardly "unstuck in time." In these works, each professing to give a view of "traditional" plant use, such problems hint at the precariousness of the theoretical foundations that lie at the root of the entire "salvage ethnography" project. Though these contradictions have been pragmatically addressed elsewhere in the ethnographic literature, these problems seem remarkably persistent, latent features of the ethnobotanical work.

    These two books from the Northwest Coast give us a glimpse of some of these problems, as well as some of the potentials of the ethnobotanical tradition. In the 1920s, Harlan Smith - an archaeologist with the National Museum of Canada - worked with the Gitksan Indians of north coastal British Columbia. In traditional ethnobotanical form, Smith's fieldwork consisted of presenting Gitksan elders with plant samples and recording the information that they provided on each. In the process, he produced an impressive collection of notes, which he pieced together into a rough manuscript. Entitled "Ethnobotany of the Gitksan Indians of British Columbia" and containing information on 112 species of plants, this was the first reasonably complete "ethnobotany" produced for a tribe of Canada's west coast. Only recently did the document receive the editorial attention it required (and deserved) for publication. Editors, Compton, Rigsby, and Tarpent have done an admirable job, cleaning up some of Smith's prose, checking and correcting Gitksan phonetics, and adding numerous black-and-white photos of plants mentioned in the text. More importantly, the editors produced the document in something approximating its original field-note staccato, with original warts and blemishes intact. Here, without editorial attempts to conflate or compress the data, the contradictions of reconstructive ethnobotany come to light: one elder asserts that a plant was an important medicine, for example, while another asserts that the plant was never used at all (one wonders if this might give us some hint of why Smith never published his results). But the contradictions, themselves, are enlightening and, cumulatively, the volume provides abundant useful data: better late than never. It is among the more substantial ethnobotanies available for a north coastal people, and it deserves a good skim by those with interests in the region or the practice and history of ethnobotany.

    In sharp contrast to Smith's inchoate work, we have the recent, polished ethnobotanical overview, Food Plants of Coastal First Peoples, by Nancy Turner. Here, we see the results of some seventy years of ethnobotanical research subsequent to Smith's travels. In this book, Turner has sought to distill the full corpus of ethnobotanical research regarding the food plants of all of British Columbia's coastal tribes. Turner is uniquely suited to this ambitious task: for almost three decades, she has been the foremost field researcher and writer on Northwest Coast native ethnobotany. The work draws heavily from Turner's own late-20th century fieldwork, with some review of other sources. The museum handbook from which this book is derived is already a popular reference for regional anthropologists and archaeologists; however, it is clear that, with abundant color photos and the look of a plant field guide, UBC Press has sought to market the current book to a much broader, popular audience. Here, with data compressed from numerous accounts into singular, crisp statements on plant use, we do see hints of some of the problems mentioned above. These include a lack of discussion of the antiquity of described plant uses (though some of these uses were recorded almost 200 after European contact). Also, one wonders if inter-tribal differences in plant use discussed in the volume might reflect the idiosyncratic recollections of individual consultants or post-contact variability in tribal contact with colonials, as much as they reflect pre-contact patterns of inter-tribal variation. Still, as popular ethnobotanical treatments go, this is a particularly thoughtful and informative one. Contextual ethnographic details are relayed with clarity, sensitivity, and precision, reflecting Turner's long familiarity with West Coast peoples. Plant enhancement methods (plant husbandry) and intra-tribal variability in plant use receive some brief attention. Turner makes frequent mention to recent scholarly research, and provides an adequate bibliography for specialists and researchers to examine the specifics themselves. Color photographs and botanical descriptions are unusually clear. If one hopes to share the fruits of ethnobotanical research with a popular audience, this is a particularly good way to do so.

    Both of these books deserve the attention of cultural ecologists attempting to unravel the subtle complexities of the ethnobotanical literature. Taken together, we might learn as much from what has been omitted from these two volumes - one from the beginnings of ethnobotanical research on the Northwest Coast, and one summarizing this region's ethnobotanical tradition in retrospect - as we might learn from what has been included.

    * As many cultural ecologists will complain, high-speed field research on plant use, without work on husbandry, production, and storage can lead to oversights, often contributing to a general underestimation of the complexity and intensity of indigenous resource management. As I attempt to reconstruct traditions of endemic plant cultivation on the Northwest Coast of North America, I am perpetually confronted with this vast gap in the ethnobotanical corpus.

    New Books:

    Zimmerer, K. & Young, K.R. (eds). 1998. Nature's Geography: New lessons for conservation and development. University of Wisconsin Press. (view details)

    Goodman, A.H. & Leatherman, T.L. 1998. Building a New Biocultural Synthesis: Political-economic perspectives on human biology. 'Linking Levels of Analysis' series. Ann Arbor: University pf Michigan Press. $19.95.

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