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.

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3 thoughts on “An Experimentation in Collaboration: A Dual Approach to Traditional Ecological Knowledge

  1. PaleoBaron

    Hi Chris and Roxanne,

    Both of the papers you present here deal intimately with ecological knowledge but one thing I expected to see in the write-up was that both papers neglected to recognize alternative approaches to the study of culture, such as historical and humanist, that place less emphasis on the physical rather than the social environment. I am not doubting the validity of ecological knowledge, but would argue for a middle-ground that considers both social variables (i.e. prestige) and environmental variables (i.e. resource density). I thought for a moment they were going to get at this point when they advocated for the use of traditional indigenous knowledge, but the data gleamed from their studies was so primarily focused on ecological aspects that I think they may have missed some other valuable points. Any thoughts?

    – PaleoBaron

    1. tsujic

      Hi Brett,

      If I am interpreting your query correctly it concerns why there is a lack of discussion about the physical environment shaping cultural practices? I know from my socio-cultural background that there is a general aversion to engaging in this mode of thinking because it presumes environmental determinism, and downplays individual and cultural autonomy and the ability for people to shape their environment. This is one of the paradigm shifts that socio-cultural anthropology has undergone, and implicitly acknowledges in current literature.


  2. Taylor

    Hi Chris and Roxanne!

    I quite enjoyed reading this as I have not read much about TEK, especially in relation to archaeological work. This might be due to the archaeological readings I am doing or because the literature is scarce. Which leads me to ask, is there much literature on TEK in the arch world? You mention some great points about the challenges of using such an approach, these I am sure these have slowed down the use of TEK in archaeology (for good reason). Proper collaboration, though, between archaeologists and knowledge holders would, can, and has provided such rich studies and understandings of the past.



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