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.