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What is cultural ecology

The anthropologist Charles Frake defined cultural ecology in 1962 as the study of the role of culture as a dynamic component of any ecosystem , a definition that remains current. Between one third and one half of the earth’s surface has been modified by human activities. Cultural ecology holds that human beings were intrinsically linked to the processes taking place on the earth’s surface long before technological developments made it possible to alter them on a large scale.

The contrast between the previous vision and the current one of cultural ecology can be exemplified in two opposing concepts: human impact and the cultural landscape. In the 1970s the roots of the environmental movement developed out of concern for human impact on the environment. But it differs from the conception of cultural ecology in that it places human beings outside the environment. Human beings are part of the environment, not an external force that modifies it. The term cultural landscape, that is, people and their environment, conceives of the Earth as the product of bioculturally interactive processes.

cultural ecology

Cultural ecology is part of the set of theories that make up the environmental social sciences and that provide anthropologists, archaeologists, geographers, historians, and other researchers and educators with a conceptual framework about the reasons people have for acting.

Cultural ecology is integrated with human ecology, which distinguishes two aspects: human biological ecology, which deals with the adaptation of people through biological processes; and human cultural ecology, which studies how people adapt using cultural forms.

Considered as the study of the interaction between living beings and their environment, cultural ecology is associated with how people perceive the environment; it is also associated with the impact of human beings, sometimes imperceptible, on the environment, and vice versa. Cultural ecology has to do with human beings: what we are and what we do as one more organism on the planet.

adaptation to the environment

Cultural ecology studies the processes of adaptation to the environment, that is, how people relate to, modify and are affected by their changing environment. These studies are of great importance since they address issues such as deforestation, the disappearance of species, food shortages or soil degradation. Learning about the adaptation processes humanity has gone through can help, for example, to envision alternatives to deal with the effects of global warming.

Human ecology studies the how and why of the processes with which different cultures have resolved their subsistence problems; how people perceive their environment and how they preserve and share that knowledge. Cultural ecology pays special attention to traditional knowledge about how we integrate with the environment.

Adaptation to the environment. Adaptation to the environment.

The complexity of human development

The development of cultural ecology as a theory began with the attempt to understand cultural evolution, with the theory of so-called unilinear cultural evolution. This theory, developed at the end of the 19th century, posited that all cultures developed in a linear progression: savagery, defined as a hunter-gatherer society; barbarism, which was the evolution to shepherds and first farmers; and civilization, characterized by the development of aspects such as writing, the calendar and metallurgy.

As archaeological investigations progressed and dating techniques developed, it became clear that the development of ancient civilizations did not obey linear processes with simple rules. Some cultures oscillated between forms of subsistence based on agriculture and those based on hunting and gathering, or combined them. Societies that did not have an alphabet had some kind of calendar. It was found that cultural evolution was not unilinear but that societies develop in many different ways; in other words, cultural evolution is multilinear.

environmental determinism

The recognition of the complexity of the development processes of societies and of the multilinearity of cultural change led to a theory on the interaction between people and their environment: environmental determinism. This theory established that the environment of each human group determines the subsistence methods that it develops, as well as the social structure of the human group. The social environment can change and human groups make decisions about how to adapt to the new situation based on both their successful and frustrating experiences. The work of the American anthropologist Julian Steward laid the foundations of cultural ecology; he was also the one who coined the name of the discipline.

The evolution of cultural ecology

The modern structuring of cultural ecology is based on the materialist school of the 1960s and 1970s, and incorporates elements from disciplines such as historical ecology, political ecology, postmodernism, or cultural materialism. In short, cultural ecology is a methodology for analyzing reality.


Berry, J.W. A Cultural Ecology of Social Behavior . Advances in Experimental Social Psychology. Edited by Leonard Berkowitz. Academic Press Vol. 12: 177–206, 1979.

Frake, Charles O. Cultural Ecology and Ethnography. American Anthropologist 64(1): 53–59, 1962.

Head, Lesley, Atchison, Jennifer. Cultural ecology: emerging human-plant geographies . Progress in Human Geography 33 (2): 236-245, 2009.

Sutton, Mark Q, Anderson, EN Introduction to Cultural Ecology. Publisher Maryland Lanham. Second edition. Altamira Press, 2013.

Montagud Rubio, N. Cultural ecology: what it is, what it studies , and research methods . Psychology and mind.