From controlled burning of forests in Alberta to building clam gardens on West Coast beaches, humans have shaped the environment for centuries. What can we learn from that ancient past?
Historical ecology is an emerging scientific field with international researchers from multiple disciplines, including archaeology, anthropology and the natural sciences. They say that the past will be key to understanding the future of climate change.
“They’re looking at conditions in the past — what worked, what didn’t — and being able to learn from history so that we try to chart the best sustainable path forward,” says Jana Vamosi, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology in the Biological Sciences Department in the Faculty of Science.
Vamosi participated in a Vancouver workshop organized by historical ecologists, who also held a similar workshop in Uppsala, Sweden. The facilitated workshops and online discussions produced a list of 50 consensus-driven research questions for historical ecology.
As one of the only researchers from the natural sciences collaborating in a workshop with social scientists, Vamosi helped formulate some of the research questions, especially on biodiversity and community ecology.
She is an author on a new paper, Anthropological Contributions to Historical Ecology: 50 Questions, Infinite Prospects, published in the peer-reviewed, multidisciplinary open-access journal PLOS ONE.
Human-driven environmental change can be positive
In confronting global problems involving environmental change, individuals often feel overwhelmed in thinking about ways to contribute to a solution, Vamosi notes.
“That’s where this historical ecology project is really innovative, in breaking down a big problem into a series of key questions,” she says. The applied research questions incorporate myriad ways that a researcher can tackle the questions within the overarching theme of human-driven environmental change through time.
Vamosi found the transdisciplinary approach — encompassing both natural and social sciences and including an Indigenous perspective — refreshing. “I was really inspired by the process to crystallize the contribution that a historical ecological approach can make.”
Historical ecology focuses on examining human-driven environmental change over decades, centuries and millennia, and its impact on creating contemporary landscapes, habitats and culture. Such change is not always negative.
“Our network of archaeologists and Indigenous collaborators has unearthed how ancient people have adapted to instability by managing their environments, to increase biodiversity, for example,” says Chelsey Armstrong, co-lead author on the paper, workshop organizer, and a doctoral student in archaeology and ethnobiology at Simon Fraser University.
“People and landscapes are entwined, and people can shape their environments in mutually beneficial ways,” says co-lead author and fellow organizer Anna Shoemaker, a doctoral student in archaeology and ancient history at Uppsala University in Sweden.
Novel approach enlightens research here
In Canada and elsewhere, native peoples’ practice of igniting controlled burns of forests while hunting and to create space for grasslands and crops often resulted in higher levels of species diversity.
Likewise, the building of rock-lined clam gardens by Indigenous people on West Coast beaches enhanced local forest biodiversity, Vamosi notes. “People were using their knowledge of the landscape to get the food and nutrition that humans clearly need, without having negative impacts on the environment.”
Vamosi, an expert in plant biodiversity and director of the University of Calgary’s herbarium which holds more than 90,000 preserved plant specimens dating back to the 1800s, plans to apply what she learned from her historical ecology colleagues to her work.
Her research includes investigating where certain plant species were in Alberta in the past, which species have disappeared or are threatened, and how that might affect biodiversity in the future.
Cole Burns, one of Vamosi’s master’s students and a Métis who received an Indigenous Graduate Award, is studying how bees and other insect pollinators influence the fruit yield of the Arctic raspberry. Some of these pollinators may decline with climate change.
“His findings will us predict how the wild harvesting of Arctic raspberry might be impacted by climate change,” Vamosi said. “Knowing what we are at risk of losing helps us prepare for upcoming challenges.”