Monthly Archives: March 2017

An Experimentation in Collaboration: A Dual Approach to Traditional Ecological Knowledge


Inspired by Koster et al.’s (2016) research in Current Anthropology we have chosen to discuss a topic which intersects our disciplinary interests of natural and social science. Traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) is a body of knowledge that is site specific and is developed through generation of cultural transmission (Drew 2006). This knowledge concerns relationships between Indigenous persons, other organisms, and the living environment. Various disciplines have incorporated TEK in their research programs, and here we focus on its presence in anthropology. In this collaborative blog, we explore this issue from archaeological and sociocultural perspectives. These intersections concern the historical and ecological perspectives, management practices, and cautions of TEK.

Historical/Ecological Perspectives

Archaeological evidence give us an idea of the ecological knowledge and technologies past societies possessed, and their relationships with the environment. The earliest Pacific islanders were characterized as being skilled ‘seafarers’ and having an intimate relationship with both their terrestrial and marine environments (Kirch 2000). Their ability to exploit the full breadth of marine ecozones, as well as transporting a number of plant foods to new locales demonstrates a portion of their adaptable strategies. In some sites, material culture and marine animal remains can only provide so much data, often archaeologists use ethnographic data as a second line of evidence to support patterns from archaeological materials. With access to TEK,  archaeologists may gain a better understanding  of prehistoric subsistence practices. Through this interdisciplinary approach, archaeologists have measured small-scale societies’ hunting and fishing abilities over great time periods.

For cultural anthropologists, Indigenous ecological knowledge provides insight into the taxonomic classification of local fauna and flora, and their use. Drew argues that contrary to Linnaean classification, premised on speciation, folk taxonomy provides insights into the priorities of the local culture with their classification practices (2005:1288). The more important the organism is, the more diverse its names and classifications. Aswani and Hamilton (2004) analyzed some of this diversity among Solomon Islanders’ folk taxonomy of Bolbometopon muricatum, bumphead parrotfish. The general species name is known as topa and variations in size are denoted as: topa kakara, big fish; kitakita, small fish; and lendeke, very small fish (Aswani and Hamilton 2004:71). According to the authors, fish size was specifically differentiated to identify which fish should be hunted – there was an aversion to hunting small fish because they were typically female and hindered reproductive capability (Aswani and Hamilton 2004:70, 78). This taxonomy, accentuates size as a key factor determining taxonomic variation. Knowledge of taxonomic classification, and species use, can supplement archaeological insights into past fishing and hunting practices, and species’ use in material culture.

Resource Management

Archaeology’s use of TEK can provide more than knowledge of historic practices or paleoenvironment reconstruction. The pressure on archaeologists, and zooarchaeologists specialists, to apply their historical data to contemporary conservation and management agendas has been increasing lately. Growing global concerns such as climate change and overfishing have led to more projects incorporating archaeologists, as opposed to only natural scientists. Their historical datasets can provide  the cultural significance of marine and terrestrial resources over time and between groups (Lambrides and Weisler 2016). For instance, Virginia Butler (2004) had used her ethnoarchaeological evidence to not only reconstruct past subsistence models of small-scale societies, but also to analyze historic ecological knowledge in relation to archaeological cases of sustainable fisheries. Through this research she was able to suggest potential actions small and large-scale societies could undertake to maintain both local and global salmon numbers. Thus, archaeologists should be encouraged to engage with local communities, in addition to biologists and resource managers, to frame initial research objectives. In this situation, research projects can benefit more people than solely the academics, establishing strong partnerships with local communities becomes essential.

Aswani and Hamilton’s (2004) analysis of bumphead parrotfish in the Solomon Islands addresses the contentious issues of indigenous resource management. In interviews with elders on the island, historical ecological information of population growth and decline of bumphead parrotfish supplements known scientific information with regionally specific information. Prior to the 1970s, bumphead parrotfish were common, but there was a significant decline because of advances in technology which allowed indiscriminate hunting of fish, changing from spear hunting at night with lanterns to mechanically propelled spears with flashlights and scuba-diving equipment, fishing five times the general limit (Aswani and Hamilton 2004:70). In the 2000s, to combat this, stricter guidelines were enforced through mandatory size requirements of throwing back fish less than 650mm, female fish are smaller than this size; and local communication between sea estate owners in the area, sea estate owners who are away from estate are less likely to enforce or advocate for specific management practices (Aswani and Hamilton 2004:78-79). This locally specific management regime offers insight into managing the fish population, and contextualized examples of solutions.


Archaeologists have been encouraged to establish academic and community partnerships which could benefit traditional land use and occupancy studies, community-based interest in regional heritage, and cultural tourism planning (Robinson 1996:126). Robinson defines this sort of practice as participatory action research which, in Canada, has seen more partnerships with other disciplines such as social anthropology, law, political science, and environmental science (Robinson, 1996).  Participatory action research developed in the 1950s and 60s from numerous central American and Indian sub-continent communities which argued against the western science model and its analytic reasoning and habit to discredit any value of such things as mythology, intuitive wisdom, and TEK (Robinson 1996:127). Indigenous communities’ distaste for ‘being studied’ also stems from  the unequal relationship between communities and academics. After reviewing literature from Canada and Russia, Robinson noted how various researchers were met with displeasure because generations of academics (mainly social scientists) prior to them had benefited from such relationships yet “left nothing tangible in return” (1996:126). He argued that with archaeology, as with any other discipline, the obligations and benefits of such partnerships should be reciprocal, not solely for the academic party.

Drew (2006) similarly cautions the use of Indigenous ecological knowledge, despite an apparent benefit in supplementing universal scientific knowledge on specific flora and fauna. The most important issue pertains to problems arising from intellectual property and the right to disseminate this information. Drew highlights that not all communities may want their secret practices of hunting and foraging publicized, fearing scrutiny from the international community for defying the trope of the noble ecological savage, or divulging culturally sensitive private information (2005:1291). Indigenous ecological knowledge must be appropriately communicated and divulged with the community’s permission to enable symmetrical power relations and dialogues with those outside it.


Researchers, for years have recognized the value of  TEK, and have sought to acquire it for various research interests. Acknowledgement and incorporation of TEK has provided more holistic perspectives in understanding the archaeological record of past hunting practices, and communities taxonomic classifications. Additionally, TEK usage is emerging in ecological management projects focused on conservation. However, accessing TEK requires mutually respectful relationships with indigenous communities, and negotiating resources. Given these trajectories of TEK, its benefits and possible harms, we are interested in seeing how TEK will become more relevant in an increasingly globalized world affected by climate change, and devaluation of natural environments through pollution and resource extraction.

By Chris and Roxanne


Aswani, S., & Hamilton, R. J. (2004). Integrating indigenous ecological knowledge and customary sea tenure with marine and social science for conservation of bumphead parrotfish (Bolbometopon muricatum) in the Roviana Lagoon, Solomon Islands. Environmental conservation, 31(01), 69-83.

Butler, V. L. & Campbell, S. K. (2004). Resource intensification and resource depression in the Pacific Northwest of North America: A zooarchaeological review. Journal of World Prehistory, 18(4): 327-405.

Drew, J. A. (2005). Use of traditional ecological knowledge in marine conservation. Conservation biology, 19(4), 1286-1293.

Kirch, P. V. (2000). On the Road of the Winds: An Archaeological History of the Pacific Islands before European Contact. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Koster, J., Bruno, O., & Burns, J.L. (2016). Wisdom of elders? Ethnobiological knowledge across the lifespan. Current Anthropology, 57: 113-121.

Lambrides, A. B. J., & Weisler, M. I. (2016). Pacific Islands ichthyoarchaeology: Implications for the development of prehistoric fishing studies and global sustainability. Journal of Archaeological Research, 24(3): 275-324.

Robinson, M. P. (1996). Shampoo archaeology: Towards a participatory action research approach in civil society. The Canadian Journal of Native Studies, 16(1): 125-138.

An Example of a Good Presentation

For this blog post I watched a talk from Virginia Butler, she is a zooarchaeologist who has worked with archaeological fish bones from South and North Pacific regions. I have read a number of her articles these past couple months so I was rather excited when I found this talk on Youtube. The presentation focused on one of her research projects in the Pacific Northwest, however the concepts and issues which are discussed could actually be applied globally. Much of her work deals with conservation biology and zooarchaeology, resource intensification and depression, prehistoric fishing practices, and resource sustainability. In my fourth blog I analyzed a couple journal articles which discussed anthropogenic impact on the environment as well as archaeological applications to global change issues. I was interested in knowing how the ancient past could provide lessons for contemporary issues, and Butler’s work attempts to explore this notion.


She began her talk by establishing her study in context of modern concerns with global fisheries and their sustainability. She provided some compelling statistics to ignite the audience’s feelings and understandings of this important issue. However, she explicitly stated that talking about declining global catches is ‘preaching to the choir’, and her intentions were not to focus on worrying problems but on potential solutions.  Her argument was that contemporary solutions are difficult to create and implementing sustainable strategies are questionable. Basically, how can we be confident that something will continue to be sustainable in the future? Butler suggests looking to the past for answers so that we may gain some time perspective on cases of sustainability. I admired her overall premise for this talk: suggesting alternative ways to looking at a problem and at the same time bridging the gaps between different fields.


The structure of the talk was incredibly clear (including a slide outlining her trajectory) and organized. She did not include any personal anecdotes in the speech and instead had a direct approach to present problems and solutions. She used comprehensible language but did not want to dumb it down, so she defined certain concepts which she utilized frequently throughout the talk. This made it easy for the audience and also for Butler since she did not have to do a complete code switch.  She then provided some physical context to the site ,as well as historical background outlining various transitions in lifestyles which occurred over a ~10,000 year time scale. When discussing her actual research project her motives were made very clear. She had two questions: to measure if salmon use increase along with human population growth, and whether the indigenous people were sustainable.

There was a portion of time in the middle of the presentation where some people may have lost slight interest and that was with the delivery of the data. Butler discussed the patterns in fish abundance using different charts and graphs. I do not imagine this sort of data would interest many people in general, however the inclusion of such information was necessary for the following discussion of her interpretations of the socio-ecological systems. Thinking about it now, I do not know how Butler could have presented this information differently. She utilized image representations of the data which was ideal, and she did not dwell too long on specific patterns. Her pace was quick allowing her to transition swiftly to discussions on the significance of such patterns and relations to sociocultural behaviours and practices. I think the switch between zooarchaeological ‘numbers’ to sociocultural evidence progressed the talk nicely and avoided getting stuck on the technical part.

What was effective?

Clarity of goals and motives, and the organization of the talk made it easy to follow. For instance, she was clear in stating that she took a sociocultural theoretical approach. I think this clarification of objectives was important to establish to the audience that she was not just going to discuss fish. For an audience that is not familiar with zooarchaeology, it may be necessary for the researcher to clarify that their research views the relationships between animals and people, and not solely animals.

Due to the position of the camera I was unable to watch Butler’s physical movements, but I could hear her voice clearly. Her tone remained upbeat and engaging throughout the entire talk, which kept me awake while I watched around midnight.

Although her main evidence was archaeological and ethnographic, she discussed the significance of the main issues through a series of perspectives from different fields. The research she had conducted, and the future actions and strategies made by contemporary fisheries, would have both biological and social significance. So towards the end of the presentation she did not appear to only be an archaeologist, she advocated for change through different disciplines and her position turned into one of an environmentalist. I admired this multidisciplinary aspect of the presentation because it highlighted that her work had relevance to larger issues and it was not just a display of data.

I also liked her final comment at the end which asked whether we should continue eating fish or not. I feel like she was already anticipating that question and wanted to address the audience on their own personal concerns. After reading or listening to issues such as global resource sustainability I personally would like to know how the problems and solutions relate to my own life. I think this engagement with the general public is important when these types of topics are discussed, especially in a public setting.

What was ineffective?

I would have to say my biggest criticism for this talk was the pace of her speech. Do not get me wrong, it was engaging, upbeat, and definitely not monotone. Yet I found myself thinking: “thank goodness I can pause this”. Her pace was rather quick and a lot of her data was flown over so it was difficult for the listener to grasp everything she was saying. It appeared as if she had a lot to say in the given time and perhaps this was a reason why no anecdotes were included in her talk.

Final comments:

I found it to be a straightforward lecture; a problem, argument for a solution, research field and site context, data, interpretation, and relation to large issues. I did not have to guess or dig deep to figure out what her arguments or significance were, I appreciated this clarity of her presentation. There was nothing completely unconventional about the framework of the lecture, specifically there were no creative anecdotes or narrative. Was it still good? Of course! Just because it was simply structured does not mean it was a bad talk. I enjoyed Butler’s presentation because she discussed an issue which is of global concern. What made her content unique were the suggestions for unconventional ideas, approaches, and insights to a problem which contemporary scientists continue to struggle with. These points were made clear, and I believe her intentions to address a wider audience were apparent as well.


“Virginia Butler – The 10,000 year record of sustainable fisheries in the Pacific Northwest,”  BevanSeries, retrieved from