Cultural ecology is a recent field of scientific endeavor, barely a hundred years old. The official definition is “the study of the processes by which a society adapts to its environment.” This has been a very useful tool to all fields of scientific inquiry, especially archaeologists. This study began as a method for historians to to organize and categorize their impressions of the way that societies changed on their course through history.
Just as an ancient city was not built in a day, it was not used for only a day, and and it was usually not abandoned in a day either. An ancient site has been used by countless societies, sometimes interweaving and sometimes distinct. Some of societies persist so long that they change, or “evolve,” into something quite different.
Over the years some conditions stay the same, but many more change. The area may grow colder or hotter, wetter or cooler. The food supply may change, and the neighbors might too. Technology can revolutionize or decimate. But people survive, and thrive, and humanity tends to overcome obstructions and continue to grow. The study of this is “cultural ecology.” Scientists know that just as plants and animals grow in their environment, human beings do too. Many of the same tools science would use to describe an animal society are perfectly apt for human society. Cultural ecology marks the point where science turns its powers of discernment in the mirror, and views our society as part of the animal kingdom.
If one wishes to trace how the simple oyster farmers of the prehistoric River Thames came to build the London Stock Exchange and Westminster Abbey, or describe the overlapping waves of settling and migration that created modern Asia, cultural ecology offers a precise and scientific method of deduction and description. The scientific study of literary culture, pop culture, and even scientific culture is properly in the domain of cultural ecology. Words and thoughts can themselves be described as forms of life, and followed as they multiply, combine, and propagate. It is a truly fascinating mode of inquiry, and there are many more amazing discoveries to come.
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