Research Involving Historical Ecology


Next time you admire an environment for its seemingly pristine and untouched natural beauty, think twice. One approach within the growing field of historical ecology is to view the environment and landscape as an evolving artifact of partial human creation. Sometimes the landscape modifications are large and obvious such as Neolithic circular earthworks (banteay kou) in East Cambodia and neighboring Vietnam. More familiar examples include urban sites, water features (e.g., canals, baray, trapeang, etc.), large earthworks, infrastructure and ancient temple monuments from the Funan to Angkorian periods throughout Cambodia and neighboring countries. These are cases where it is clear that large features on the landscape were made by humans. Additionally, the rice fields that dominate the floodplain rural areas have been created, used and modified for centuries. In other cases, however, the human contribution can be difficult to determine to the untrained eye, such as differences in the plant and animal repertoire as well as species-genera ratios in an otherwise natural appearing forest or aquatic landscape. These modifications are often hundreds and even thousands of years old. They leave their cultural fingerprints as well.

Dr. D. Kyle Latinis and a team of researchers are currently investigating the ancient ecological and economic fingerprints left by past societies in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Recent fieldwork included a survey of northern Cambodia and southern Laos along the Mekong and Sekong Rivers. The Sekong is a tributary to the Mekong which begins in the mountains of Vietnam, flows through sothern Laos and meets the Mekong in Stung Treng, Cambodia. Dr. Latinis’ impressions of areas such as Wat Phu in Champassak and Attapu (both in southern Laos) was not how natural the forests appeared (what any lay person would admire about the panorama), but how ‘ancient Khmer’ the forests, environment and ecology have been and still are.

The layout of the rice fields and palm trees as well as the plant and animal species in house gardens, chamkar (akin to distant gardens and small plantations) and proximate forest areas are a quick and clear indication of the antiquity and people who lived in the area according to Dr. Latinis. The ‘natural’ looking forests are hardly natural at all. They appear to have been modified whether systematically planned or haphazardly for several millennia. This will probably cross-check with pollen data as it seems to elsewhere.

Ecosystems can be as culturally distinct and as culturally manufactured as a pot or a temple. Imagine that the environment is a list of all the biological and non-biological things and conditions in a given area. The ecology is all the relationships between things on that list. Humans exploit and manage (or mismanage) resources as well modify the distribution of resources in the environment. They alter that list and the relationships. They change the ecology whether intentional or not once they are in the ecosystem. Historical ecologists study the changes on that list including the changes in the relationships over time.

It becomes a subsistence and economic issue as well. Different cultures have different economies and management strategies much like they have different cuisines and cooking/eating habits. Their environment becomes a culturally distinct resource warehouse over time. What is put into or removed from that warehouse, how it is managed, how it also acts like a giant resource biosphere is particularly interesting to Dr. Latinis. However, the warehouses can be mismanaged (i.e., exhausted or destroyed). This leaves ancient fingerprints as well (more like scars).

The fingerprints also change over time, whether from an erosional or replacement process following abandonment, emigration