UC anthropologist advocates broader surveys of ancient landscapes

April 07, 2003

Work by a University of Cincinnati anthropologist published on Monday, April 7, in the highly prestigious "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences" may well influence the anthropological, economic, geographical and environmental examination of the ancient and modern landscape and the use of its resources, especially water.

"How to Interpret an Ancient Landscape" by Vernon Scarborough, UC professor of anthropology, was published in the NAS journal as a means of re-examining the traditional, deterministic view of human ecology and suggests broadening that view to allow for greater societal and economic complexity.

"The ancient landscape, tied to the consumption and distribution of water, is fundamental to the social organization of groups. You cannot just consider ecology and environment without taking into account the cultural, religious and economic systems that drive the landscape's use," said Scarborough, who is also the author of "The Flow of Power: Ancient Water Management and Landscapes" due out this summer.

Thus, according to Scarborough, it's very simplistic to state that increasingly dense populations (whether in the ancient or modern worlds) are the straightforward reason for the overexploitation of an environment and hence, the demise of landscapes, peoples and cultures.

In his paper, Scarborough points out that ancient societies often successfully, but slowly, altered living, labor, agricultural, and water collection/distribution practices over time, They successfully transformed the natural environment to meet the increasing load of growing populations. In fact, in Bali, (Indonesia), the environmental/cultural/religious practices mapped out centuries ago still functions successfully.

"The priests in the Balinese system of water temples also serve as agricultural extension officers. As part of the festivals, care of the gods and other duties, they welcome pilgrims. They routinely collect information from the pilgrims about crop and field conditions. They get a fairly good picture of what's going on agriculturally and can thus, advise farmers and efficiently release water where most beneficial. It's a decentralized system that has evolved over hundreds of years," said Scarborough.

He continued, "Among the Maya, culture and water management were linked in a setting in which resources were scarce. Yet, the Maya were able to create a sustainable environment incrementally so the population could grow without overexploitation. They created sophisticated systems to form a landscape of great productivity and sustainability."

University of Cincinnati

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