Skip to main content
    • Aa
    • Aa

Why history matters in ecology: an interdisciplinary perspective

  • PÉTER SZABÓ (a1)

In recent decades, the interconnectedness of history and ecology has received increasing attention. Although necessarily interdisciplinary, efforts to study this interconnectedness had their roots either in the humanities and social sciences or in the natural sciences: scholars have tried either to understand more about nature with the help of history, or, about human history with the help of natural phenomena. As a result, theoretical studies about the integration of ecology and history try to answer two relatively distinct questions: ‘why ecology matters in history’ and ‘why history matters in ecology’. This paper sets out to systematize current knowledge on the latter question and to highlight those issues that have so far received less attention. The arguments can be grouped into three major themes. First, history matters in ecology because it aids understanding of current patterns and processes in nature. Second, because it fosters better informed management and policy decisions; and third, because it places ecology and conservation in a wider interdisciplinary context. Besides dealing with the perspectives of ecologists and conservationists, this paper also includes material from historians, anthropologists and archaeologists, that is, from scholars whose primary interest does not lie in ecological investigations, but who have, nonetheless, embraced the need for the integration of ecology and history.

Corresponding author
*Correspondence: Dr Péter Szabó e-mail:
Hide All
Aplet G. & Keeton W.S. (1999) Application of historical range of variability concepts to biodiversity conservation. In: Practical Approaches to the Conservation of Biological Diversity, ed. Baydack R.K., Campa H., & Haufler J.B., pp. 7186. New York, NY, USA: Island Press.
Balée W. (2006) The research program of historical ecology. Annual Review of Anthropology 35: 7598.
Balée W. & Erickson C.L. (2006) Time, complexity, and historical ecology. In: Time and Complexity in Historical Ecology: Studies in Neotropical Lowlands, ed. Balée W. & Erickson C.L., pp. 112. New York, NY, USA: Columbia University Press.
Beevor H. (1924) Norfolk Woodlands, from the evidence of contemporary chronicles. Transactions of Norfolk and Norwich Naturalists’ Society 11: 448508.
Begon M., Townsend C.R. & Harper J.L. (2006) Ecology: From Individuals to Ecosystems. Fourth edition. Malden, MA, USA: Blackwell Publishing.
Bilsky L.J., ed (1980) Historical Ecology: Essays on Environment and Social Change. Port Washington, NY, USA: Kennikat Press.
Birks H.H., Birks H.J.B., Kaland P.E. & Moe D., eds (1988) The Cultural Landscape: Past, Present and Future. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Boyd W.E. & Hall V.A. (1998) Landmarks on the frontiers of palynology: an introduction to the IX. International Palynological Congress Special Issue on New Frontiers and Applications in Palynology. Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology 103: 110.
Bowman D.M.J.S. (2001) Future eating and country keeping: what role has environmental history in the management of biodiversity? Journal of Biogeography 28: 549564.
Bradbury R.H., Green D.G. & Snoad N. (2000) Are ecosystems complex systems? In: Complex Systems, ed. Bossomaier T.R.J. & Green D.G., pp. 339366. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Brandt J., Primdahl J. & Reenberg A. (1999) Rural land-use and dynamic forces: analysis of ‘driving forces’ in space and time. In: Land-Use Changes and Their Environmental Impact in Rural Areas in Europe, ed. Krönert R., Baudry J., Bowler I.R. & Reenberg A., pp. 81102. Paris, France: UNESCO.
Brooks D.R. (1985) Historical ecology: a new approach to studying the evolution of ecological associations. Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden 72: 660685.
Brooks D.R. & McLennan D.A. (1999) Phylogeny, Ecology, and Behaviour: A Research Programme in Comparative Biology. Chicago, IL, USA: University of Chicago Press.
Bürgi M. & Russell E.W.B. (2001) Integrative methods to study landscape changes. Land Use Policy 18: 916.
Bürgi M. & Schuler A. (2003) Driving forces of forest management: an analysis of regeneration practices in the forests of the Swiss Plateau during the 19th and 20th century. Forest Ecology and Management 176: 173183.
Bürgi M., Hersperger A.M. & Schneeberger N. (2004) Driving forces of landscape change: current and new directions. Landscape Ecology 19: 857868.
Bürgi M. & Gimmi U. (2007) Three objectives of historical ecology: the case of litter collecting in Central European forests. Landscape Ecology 22: 7787.
Chase A. (1986) Playing God in Yellowstone: The Destruction of America's First National Park. Boston, MA, USA: Atlantic Monthly Press.
Christensen N. (1989) Landscape history and ecological change. Journal of Forest History 33: 116124.
Clark R.L. (1990) Ecological history for environmental management. Proceedings of the Ecological Society of Australia 16: 121.
Crompton G. & Sheail J. (1975) The historical ecology of Lakenheat Warren in Suffolk, England: a case study. Biological Conservation 8: 299313.
Cronon W. (1993) The uses of environmental history. Environmental History Review 17 (3): 122.
Crosby A.W. (1995) The past and present of environmental history. American Historical Review 100: 11771190.
Crumley C.L. (1994) Historical ecology: a multidimensional ecological orientation. In: Historical Ecology: Cultural Knowledge and Changing Landscapes, ed. Crumley C.L., pp. 116. Santa Fe, NM, USA: School of American Research Press.
Crumley C.L. (1998) Foreword. In: Advances in Historical Ecology, ed. Balée W., pp. ixxiv. New York, NY, USA: Columbia University Press.
Crumley C.L. (2007) Historical ecology: integrated thinking at multiple temporal and spatial scales. In: The World System and the Earth System: Global Socioenvironmental Change and Sustainability since the Neolithic, ed. Hornborg A. & Crumley C.L., pp. 1528. Walnut Creek, CA, USA: Left Coast Press.
Crumley C.L. & Marquardt W.H., eds (1987) Regional Dynamics: Burgundian Landscapes in Historical Perspective. San Diego, CA, USA: Academic Press.
Dambrine E., Dupouey J.L., Laüt L., Humbert L., Thinon M., Beaufils T. & Richard H. (2007) Present forest biodiversity patterns in France related to former Roman agriculture. Ecology 88: 14301439.
de Blois S., Domon G. & Bouchard A. (2002) Landscape issues in plant ecology. Ecography 25: 244256.
de Vries D. (2005) Choosing your baseline carefully: integrating historical and political ecology in the evaluation of environmental intervention projects. Journal of Ecological Anthropology 9: 3550.
Dietl G.P. & Flessa K.W., eds (2009) Conservation Paleobiology: Using the Past to Manage for the Future. Paleontological Society Papers Volume 15. Houston, TX, USA: Paleontological Society.
Dupouey J.L., Dambrine E., Laffite J.D. & Moares C. (2002) Irreversible impact of past land use on forest soils and biodiversity. Ecology 83: 29782984.
Egan D. & Howell E.A. (2001) Introduction. In: The Historical Ecology Handbook: A Restorationist's Guide to Reference Ecosystems, ed. Egan D. & Howell E.A., pp. 123. Washington, DC, USA: Island Press.
Eriksson O., Cousins S.A.O. & Bruun H.H. (2002) Land-use history and fragmentation of traditionally managed grasslands in Scandinavia. Journal of Vegetation Science 13: 743748.
Etter A.G. (1953) Wildwood: a study in historical ecology. Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden 40: 227258.
Ewers R.M. & Didham R.K. (2006) Confounding factors in the detection of species responses to habitat fragmentation. Biological Reviews 81: 117142.
Foster D.R. (2000) Conservation lessons and challenges from ecological history. Forest History Today (fall): 2–11.
Foster D.R., Orwig D.A. & McLachlan J.S. (1996) Ecological and conservation insights from reconstructive studies of temperate old-growth forests. Trends in Ecology and Evolution 11: 419424.
Foster D., Swanson F., Aber J., Burke I., Brokaw N., Tilman D. & Knapp A. (2003) The importance of land-use legacies to ecology and conservation. BioScience 53: 7788.
Fule P.Z., Covington W.W. & Moore M.M. (1997) Determining reference conditions for ecosystem management of southwestern ponderosa pine forests. Ecological Applications 7: 895908.
Haila Y. (1999) Socioecologies. Ecography 22: 337348.
Haila Y. (2000) Beyond the nature-culture dualism. Biology and Philosophy 15: 155175.
Harper J.L. (1987) The heuristic value of ecological restoration. In: Restoration Ecology: A Synthetic Approach to Ecological Research, ed. Jordan III W.R., Gilpin M.E. & Aber J.D., pp. 3546. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Hayashida F.M. (2005) Archaeology, ecological history, and conservation. Annual Review of Anthropology 34: 4365.
Herben T., Münzbergová Z., Mildén M., Ehrlén J., Cousins O. & Eriksson O. (2006) Long-term spatial dynamics of Succisa pratensis in a changing rural landscape: linking dynamical modelling with historical maps. Journal of Ecology 94: 131143.
Hermy M. & Verheyen K. (2007) Legacies of the past in the present-day forest biodiversity: a review of past land-use effects on forest plant species composition and diversity. Ecological Research 22: 361371.
Hessburg P.F., Smith B.G. & Salter R.B. (1999) Detecting change in forest spatial patterns from reference conditions. Ecological Applications 9: 12321252.
Hughes J.D. (1995) Ecology and development as narrative themes of world history. Environmental History Review 19: 116.
Ingerson A.E. (1994) Tracking and testing the nature/culture dichotomy in practice. In: Historical Ecology: Cultural Knowledge and Changing Landscapes, ed. Crumley C.L., pp. 4366. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press.
Jackson S.T. (2006) Vegetation, environment, and time: the origination and termination of ecosystems. Journal of Vegetation Science 17: 549557.
Jackson S.T. & Hobbs R.J. (2009) Ecological restoration in the light of ecological history. Science 325: 567569.
Jackson S.T., Betancourt J.L., Booth R.K. & Gray S.T. (2009) Ecology and the ratchet of events: climate variability, niche dimensions, and species distributions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106: 1968519692.
Keane R.E., Hessburg P.F., Landres P.B. & Swanson F.J. (2009) The use of historical range and variability (HRV) in landscape management. Forest Ecology and Management 258: 10251037.
Kirby K.J. & Buckley G.P., eds (1994) Ecological Responses to the 1987 Great Storm in the Woods of South-East England. Peterborough, UK: English Nature.
Lambert J.M., Jennings J.N., Smith C.T., Green C. & Hutchinson J.N. (1960) The Making of theBroads. London, UK: Royal Geographic Society.
Landres P.B., Morgan P. & Swanson F.J. (1999) Overview of the use of natural variability concepts in managing ecological systems. Ecological Applications 9: 11791188.
Lentz D.L., ed (2000) Imperfect Balance: Landscape Transformation in the Pre-Columbian Americas. New York, NY, USA: Columbia University Press.
Levin S.A. (1998) Ecosystems and the biosphere as complex adaptive systems. Ecosystems 1: 431436.
Lloret F. & Marí G. (2001) A comparison of the medieval and the current fire regimes in unmanaged pine forests of Catalonia (NE Spain). Forest Ecology and Management 141: 155163.
Lowenthal D. (2005) Natural and cultural heritage. International Journal of Heritage Studies 11: 8192.
Lunt I.D. & Spooner P.G. (2005) Using historical ecology to understand patterns of biodiversity in fragmented agricultural landscapes. Journal of Biogeography 32: 18591873.
Marcucci D.J. (2000) Landscape history as a planning tool. Landscape and Urban Planning 49: 6781.
Marsh G.P. (1874) The Earth as Modified by Human Action. New York, NY, USA: Scribner, Armstrong, and Co.
McDonnell M.J. & Pickett S.T.A., eds (1993a) Humans as Components of Ecosystems: The Ecology of Subtle Human Effects and Populated Areas. New York, NY, USA: Springer.
McDonnell M.J. & Pickett S.T.A (1993b) Introduction: the scope and need for an ecology of subtle human effects and populated areas. In: Humans as Components of Ecosystems: The Ecology of Subtle Human Effects and Populated Areas, ed. McDonnell M.J. & Pickett S.T.A., pp. 16. New York, NY, USA: Springer.
McNeill J.R. (2000) Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the 20th-Century World. New York, NY, USA: Norton.
Meine C. (1999) It's about time: conservation biology and history. Conservation Biology 13: 13.
Mitchell R.J. & Duncan S.L. (2009) Range of variability in southern coastal plain forests: its historical, contemporary, and future role in sustaining biodiversity. Ecology and Society 14 (1): 17.
Morgan P., Aplet G.H., Haufler J.B., Humphries H.C., Moore M.M. & Wilson W.D. (1994) Historical range of variability: a useful tool for evaluating ecosystem change. Journal of Sustainable Forestry 2: 87111.
Nash R. (1967) Wilderness and the American Mind. New Haven, CT, USA: Yale University Press.
Newell B. & Wasson R. (2002) Social system vs. solar system: why policy makers need history. In: Conflict and Cooperation Related to International Water Resources: Historical Perspectives, ed. Castelein S. & Otte A., pp. 317. Paris, France: UNESCO.
Newell B., Crumley C.L., Hassan N., Lambin E.F., Pahl-Wostl C., Underdal A. & Wasson R. (2005) A conceptual template for integrative human-environment research. Global Environmental Change 15: 299307.
Oelschlaeger M. (1991) The Idea of Wilderness: From Prehistory to the Age of Ecology. New Haven, CT, USA & London, UK: Yale University Press.
Pärtel M., Mändla R. & Zobel M. (1999) Landscape history of calcareous (alvar) grasslands in Hanila, western Estonia, during the last three hundred years. Landscape Ecology 14: 187196.
Peterken G.F. (1969) Development of vegetation in Staverton Park, Suffolk. Field Studies 6: 139.
Peterken G.F. (1981) Woodland Conservation and Management. London, UK: Chapman and Hall.
Pickett S.T.A. & Parker V.T. (1994) Avoiding the old pitfalls: opportunities in a new discipline. Restoration Ecology 2: 7579.
Plue J., Hermy M., Verheyen K., Thuillier P., Saguez R. & Decocq G. (2008) Persistent changes in forest vegetation and seed bank 1,600 years after human occupation. Landscape Ecology 23: 673688.
Rackham O. (1975) Hayley Wood: Its History and Ecology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridgeshire & Isle of Ely Naturalists' Trust.
Rackham O. (1986) The History of the Countryside. London. UK: Dent.
Rackham O. (1994) The Illustrated History of the Countryside. London, UK: Weidenfeld and Nicholson.
Rackham O. (1998) Implications of historical ecology for conservation. In: Conservation Science and Action, ed. Sutherland W.J., pp. 152175. Malden, MA, USA: Blackwell Science.
Rackham O. (2003) Ancient Woodland: Its History, Vegetation and Uses in England. New edition. Colvend, UK: Castlepoint Press.
Rackham O. (2006) Woodlands. London, UK: Collins.
Rice D.S. (1976) The Historical Ecology of Lakes Yaxhá and Sacnab, El Petén, Guatemala. Ph.D. thesis, Pennsylvania State University, PA, USA.
Romme W.H. & Despain D.G. (1989) Historical perspective on the Yellowstone fires of 1988. BioScience 39: 695699.
Russell E.W.B. (1997) People and the Land Through Time: Linking Ecology and History. New Haven, CT, USA: Yale University Press.
Rymer L. (1974) The Palaeoecology and Historical Ecology of the Parish of North Knapdale, Argyllshire. PhD thesis, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK.
Rymer L. (1979) Historical ecology and environmental conservation. Environmental Conservation 6: 199200.
Sandor J.A., Gersper P.L. & Hawley J.W. (1990) Prehistoric agricultural terraces and soils in the Mimbres Area, New Mexico. World Archaeology 22: 7086.
Santayana G. (1906) The Life of Reason, or The Phases of Human Progress. Volume 1. Introduction and Reason in Common Sense. London, UK: Archibald Constable & Co.
Saunders D.A., Hobbs R.J. & Margules C.R. (1991) Biological consequences of ecosystem fragmentation: a review. Conservation Biology 5: 1832.
Schwappach A. (1886) Handbuch der Forst- und Jagdgeschichte Deutschlands. Berlin, Germany: Springer.
Snow C.P. (1959) The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Swetnam T.W., Allen C.D. & Betancourt J.L. (1999) Applied historical ecology: using the past to manage for the future. Ecological Applications 9: 11891206.
Szabó P. (2009) Open woodland in Europe in the Mesolithic and in the Middle Ages: can there be a connection? Forest Ecology and Management 257: 23272330.
Szabó P. (2010) Driving forces of stability and change in woodland structure: a case-study from the Czech lowlands. Forest Ecology and Management 259: 650656.
Thompson J.R., Duncan S.L. & Johnson K.N. (2009) Is there potential for the historical range of variability to guide conservation given the social range of variability? Ecology and Society 14 (1): 18.
Tubbs C. (1968) The New Forest: An Ecological History. Newton Abbot, UK: David & Charles.
Vale T.R. (1998) The myth of the humanised landscape: an example from Yosemite National Park. Natural Areas Journal 18: 231236.
Vale T.R., ed (2002) Fire, Native Peoples, and the Natural Landscape. Washington, DC, USA: Island Press.
Verheyen K., Bossuyt B., Hermy M. & Tack G. (1999) The land use history (1278–1990) of a mixed hardwood forest in Western Belgium and its relationship with chemical soil characteristics. Journal of Biogeography 26: 11151128.
Verheyen K., Honnay O., Bossuyt B. & Hermy M. eds (2004) Forest Biodiversity: Lessons from History for Conservation. Wallingford, UK: CABI Publishing.
Watt A.S. (1931) Preliminary observations on Scottish beechwoods (continued). Journal of Ecology 19: 321359.
Wear D.N. (1999) Challenges to interdisciplinary discourse. Ecosystems 2: 299301.
Whitlock C. & Bartlein P.J. (1993) Spatial variations of Holocene climatic change in the Yellowstone region. Quaternary Research 39: 231238.
Winiwarter V. & Knoll M. (2007) Umweltgeschichte: eine Einführung. Köln, Germany, Weimar, Germany & Wien, Austria: UTB Böhlau.
Worster D. (1988) Doing environmental history. In: The Ends of the Earth: Perspectives on Modern Environmental History, ed. Worster D., pp. 289308. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Worster D. (1990) Transformations of the Earth: toward an agroecological perspective in history. The Journal of American History 76: 10871106.
Worster D. (1993) History as natural history. In: The Wealth of Nature: Environmental History and the Ecological Imagination, ed. Worster D., pp. 3044. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Environmental Conservation
  • ISSN: 0376-8929
  • EISSN: 1469-4387
  • URL: /core/journals/environmental-conservation
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *



Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 5
Total number of PDF views: 64 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 242 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 19th October 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.