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 ES Home > Vol. 7, No. 1 > Art. 11

Copyright © 2003 by the author(s). Published here under license by The Resilience Alliance.

The following is the established format for referencing this article:
Pfeiffer, J. and E. Espeland. 2003. Egan, D., and E. A. Howell, editors. 2001. The historical ecology handbook: a restorationist's guide to reference ecosystems. Island Press, Washington, D. C., USA. Conservation Ecology 7(1): 11. [online] URL: http://www.consecol.org/vol7/iss1/art11/

Book Review

Egan, D., and E.A. Howell, editors. 2001. The Historical Ecology Handbook: a Restorationist's Guide to Reference Ecosystems. Island Press, Washington. D. C., USA

Jeanine Pfeiffer1 and Erin Espeland

1University of California at Davis

KEY WORDS: archaeology, cultural ecology, historical ecology, human ecology, paleobotany, paleoecology, reference ecosystems, restoration ecology.

Published: May 20, 2003

The Historical Ecology Handbook: a Restorationist’s Guide to Reference Ecosystems, is derived from the seminar proceedings of a 1999 restoration ecology conference, but its contents are widely applicable to researchers and practitioners involved in the study and conservation of both biological and cultural diversity. Professionals buy handbooks such as this one to keep current on research methods without having to sift through the primary literature. The Historical Ecology Handbook, following in the footsteps of historical ecology anthologies such as Crumley’s (1994) and Balée’s (1998), provides a more practically oriented text for both academic and applied researchers. The methods and conceptual approaches outlined in this handbook have the potential to inform a wide range of fields, including anthropology, archaeology, agronomy, conservation biology, cultural studies, ethnobiology, environmental studies, geography, hydrology, landscape architecture, and soil science, in addition to its readily apparent application to subdisciplines within history and ecology. The text is divided into three sections: cultural evidence, biological evidence, and a concluding section which cites case studies that employ a synthesis of the techniques covered in the text. The overall diversity of historical data-mining methods and bibliographic references employed in this text’s 17 chapters is impressive, and will introduce experienced researchers from both the biological and social sciences to new techniques and ideas on how to apply underappreciated historical ecology methods.

The chapters reviewing cultural evidence include descriptions of archaelogical and ethnobiological field methods available to unearth more accurate interpretations of historical land-use patterns, commentaries on how to make the best use of oral and written records, and extensive reviews of potential sources of survey data. Methods for gathering cultural evidence described in the book include conducting interviews with long-term residents, consulting the memoirs of early explorers, documenting indigenous land-management techniques, conducting museum artifact analysis and consulting government agency survey records. Unfortunately, this section contains some of the weakest chapters in the book, with very little information or references on how to apply the techniques described in areas outside the authors’ study sites.

The chapters considering biological evidence provide detailed outlines of available field methods for interpreting previous vegetative patterns, including dendrochronology (interpreting the growth of tree rings to determine past forest structure, the frequency of disturbances such as fire, and the natural range of variability of climate), palynology (pollen studies), and phytolith (microscopic plant-derived silica particles) analysis to infer the presence of historic plant communities. Techniques for determining historic animal assemblages described in the handbook include zooarchaeology, paleontology, and packrat midden excavation. A chapter on geomorphology, hydrology, and soil surveys discusses methods for the historical reconstruction of past landscapes. Most of these chapters provide the reader with an exceptionally solid understanding of the techniques: their strengths, limitations, and applicability to different systems, and how each has been used in a range of studies.

The final section, the case studies, includes an ecological restoration project in Nantucket, Cape Cod, Massachussetts, and a multi-scale historical analysis of vegetative change in the Indiana Dunes, both of which are admirably interdisciplinary in their approach and both of which recognize the importance of fire in community structure—even in the northeastern United States—and the problems of defining reference communities. The last two chapters, an archaeo-environmental reconstruction of plant communities in the Grand Canyon and a documentation of landscape changes in the San Francisco Bay area, demonstrate the power of combining archival data from a wide variety of sources to construct a more accurate image of successive changes in vegetation over several hundred years.

Researchers and practitioners who find themselves confronted with a restoration task should be able to use this book to evaluate a technique’s relevance to their system, assess the resultant data type and its quality, and determine if it is worth investing time and resources in the technique. To increase the handbook’s utility, we address five ways in which it could be improved: (i) expand the geographical focus; (ii) cover a wider range of methods and their applications; (iii) include more citations of studies that integrate methods across disciplines; (iv) suggest ways in which the techniques can be applied to real-life problems; and (v) provide terminology glossaries.

The geographical bias in the Historical Ecology Handbook toward North America and, more specifically, the eastern United States, makes it difficult for many researchers to evaluate the applicability of the techniques to their own systems. The strength of the handbook lies in the smorgasboard of archival and field methods detailed in the chapters, demonstrating the wide range of creative means employed in this emergent field. Yet by limiting the materials and methods to those used in the United States, an even larger realm of creative approaches is ignored. The case studies section in the handbook would benefit from the inclusion of more internationally based historical ecology studies, such as the frequently cited case of paleoenvironmental findings explaining the disappearance of the Easter Islanders (Redman 1999), the historical anthropology work that led to a revival of ancient raised-bed potato farming systems in Boliva and Ecuador (Denevan and Turner 1974, Erickson 1988), the paleobotanical work of Lepofsky et al. (1996) reconstructing human-induced geomorphological and vegetative changes in French Polynesia, the paleoecological research of Palang et al. (1998) and Koff et al. (1998) in Estonia to map landscape-level changes, and the paleoanthropological techniques employed by Fricke et al. (1995) to document Greenland’s “mini Ice Age” using the oxygen isotope ratios of skeletonized tooth enamel to infer local environmental conditions, and their parallel paleoarchaelogical studies investigating the dietary composition of ancient settlers for clues to ecosystem resource availability and settlement histories.

Certain chapters, such as those on dendrochronology and phytoliths, were thoroughly researched and described the most recent scientific advances, but other chapters, including a number contained in the section on cultural evidence, suffer from a lack of breadth and reference to related works. We look forward to a revised version of the handbook, and would recommend the inclusion of advances in “low-tech” methods, such as incorporating traditional ecological knowledge into ecosystem assessment (Williams and Baines 1993, Martin 1995, Alexiades 1996), and “high-tech” methods, such as the use of molecular analyses to trace the genetic origins and former distributions of species assemblages in plants (Hunter et al. 2001). Although some of the chapters provide excellent summaries of the limitations in existing collections of data, many of the chapters are thin on references that demonstrate how these data may be used rigorously in the construction of a reference ecosystem. As well, there are few references on how one set of techniques can be integrated with another in researching and reconstructing historical assemblages. Ultimately, the handbook would benefit from having each chapter reviewed by other specialists in the field who could provide additional commentary and critiques of the methods (viz., Grayson (1981) on using archaeological vertebrates in paleoenvironmental reconstruction or Hedges (1996) on integrative historical biogeography techniques to assess taxonomic composition)—a scholarly technique used to great advantage in scientific journals such as Cultural Anthropology.

Examples of other state-of-the-art research projects in related fields that would enrich methods cited in the handbook include the ongoing work by Klepeis and Turner (2001) to assess ancient and modern anthropogenic influences in a Mayan biosphere reserve that is changing how conservation biologists view rainforest composition and structure, and Retallack’s ground-breaking research (2002) demonstrating how paleobotanical techniques (e.g., fossilized plant stomates and herbarium specimens) can be used to track changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide. A chapter on paleoentomological techniques would also be welcome, such as the use of fossilized insects to indicate historical fauna composition (e.g., flies and beetles typically associated with dung) and ecosystem management changes (Brayshay and Dinnin 1999, Whitehouse 2000).

The handbook would benefit from the inclusion of more interdisciplinary, cross-regional examples from the social sciences, such as the work by Judith Carney (2001) linking historical references from West Africa, Portugal, and the Caribbean to inform her study of the origin of rice cultivation in the southern United States. Another example of how adding multidisciplinary, geographical breadth to the text can increase its utility can be found in the work of Nyerges and Green (2000), who applied Amazonian forest change models to the West African Guinea savanna to more accurately assess anthropogenic influences on landscape composition. A section devoted to the emergent field of ethnoecology (the study of indigenous, place-based knowledge systems and management) would be appropriate in a revised edition, as ethnoecological studies demonstrating the ubiquity of anthropogenic influences in areas previously regarded as “natural” or “pristine” (i.e., uninfluenced by human disturbance) have resulted in a conceptual shift in the biological and social sciences (cf. Fairhead and Leach 1996, Posey 1997).

Although some conservationists focus on reclaiming lands, managing them to conform to a landscape determined by aesthetic or moral values, others are faced with a dilemma when they decide to restore a landscape to what it once was. How does a conservationist or land manager, often trained as a wildlife or plant ecologist, learn about the historical precedents of a given landscape? Few areas have received historical ecological treatments in the primary literature; managers will often need to conduct their own historical research. Managers of publicly owned or accessed areas also require guidance regarding the decision-making process to determine the reference point for a given restoration project. In this case, a chapter addressing the social-political and socio-economic contexts in which these decisions are made would be useful. Several reviewers at our institution also noted the need for a more direct application of the methods described in certain chapters to the overall goals of restoration and the conceptual approach of historical ecology.

For the most part, the bibliographies at the end of each chapter guide the user to the primary literature after the chapter has given enough background to make these references comprehensible. A brief glossary of terms, either at the end of each chapter or as an appendix to the overall text, would facilitate cross-disciplinary communication and collaboration, especially for newcomers to any or all of the fields covered in the handbook. An index to the handbook listing key terminology, techniques, and ecosystems covered in the text would also greatly increase its utility.

In summary, the The Historical Ecology Handbook: a Restorationist’s Guide to Reference Ecosystems is a very good starting point for students, researchers, and practitioners in a wide range of fields, and is affordably priced. This book is an excellent first resource for practitioners with restoration or interpretation tasks before them in less well-studied systems. Conservationists working to restore an ecosystem or community assemblage, inventory native species, reconstruct cultural practices, or design educational programs for parks and museums can use this book to determine which research techniques will be applicable to a given area, and what avenues should be further explored in constructing a cultural and biological history for the area. We believe a revised and refined second edition, based on an expanded collection of studies, approaches, and commentary, would prove even more useful to scientists in North America and elsewhere.


Egan, D., and E. A. Howell, editors. 2001. The Historical Ecology Handbook: a Restorationists’ Guide to Reference Ecosystems. Island Press, Washington. D. C., USA. 480 p., hardcover, U. S. $60.00, ISBN 1559637455, paperback, U. S. $37.50, 1559637463.


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We thank our UC Davis colleagues in the restoration ecology and biogeography seminars who contributed their perspectives and comments to this review.


Alexiades, M. N., editor. 1996. Selected guidelines for ethnobotanical research: a field manual. The New York Botanical Garden, The Bronx, New York, New York, USA.

Balée, W., editor. 1998. Advances in historical ecology. Columbia University Press, New York, New York, USA.

Brayshay, B. A., and M. Dinnin. 1999. Integrated palaeoecological evidence for biodiversity at the floodplain-forest margin. Journal of Biogeography 26:115–131.

Carney, J. 2001. Black rice. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachussetts, USA.

Crumley, C. L., editor. 1994. Historical ecology: cultural knowledge and changing landscapes. School of American Research Press, Santa Fe, New Mexico, USA.

Denevan, W. M., and B. L. Turner. 1974. Forms, functions and associations of raised fields in the old world tropics. Journal of Tropical Geography 39:24–33.

Erickson, C. L. 1988. Raised field agriculture in the Lake Titicaca Basin: putting ancient agriculture back to work. Expedition 30:8–16.

Fairhead, J., and M. Leach. 1996. Escaping the deforestation mythology. ILEIA Newsletter 12:6–8.

Fricke, H. C., J. R. O’Neil, and N. Lynnerup. 1995. Oxygen isotope composition of human tooth enamel from medieval Greenland—linking climate and society. Geology 23:869–872.

Grayson, D. K. 1981. A critical view of the use of archaeological vertebrates in paleoenvironmental reconstruction. Journal of Ethnobiology 1:28–38.

Hedges, S. B. 1996. Historical biogeography of West Indian vertebrates. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 27:163–196.

Hunter, K. L., J. L. Betancourt, B. R. Riddle, T. R. Van Devender, K. L. Cole, and W. G. Spaulding. 2001. Ploidy race distributions since the last glacial maximum in the North American desert shrub, Larrea tridentata. Global Ecology and Biogeography 10:521–533.

Klepeis, P., and B. L. Turner II. 2001. Integrated land history and global change science: the example of the Southern Yucatán Peninsular Region project. Land Use Policy 18:27–39.

Koff, T., J.-M. Punning, and M. Yli-Halla. 1998. Human impact on a paludified landscape in northern Estonia. Landscape and Urban Planning 41:263–272.

Lepofsky, D., P. V. Kirch, and K. P. Lertzman. 1996. Stratigraphic and paleobotanical evidence for prehistoric human-induced environmental disturbance in Mo-orea, French Polynesia. Pacific Science 50:253–273.

Martin, G. 1995. Ethnobotany: a methods manual. Chapman and Hall, London, UK.

Nyerges, A. E., and G. M. Green. 2000. The ethnography of landscape: GIS and remote sensing in the study of forest change in West African Guinea Savanna. American Anthropologist 102:271–289.

Palang, N., Ü. Mander, and A. Luud. 1998. Landscape diversity changes in Estonia. Landscape and Urban Planning 41:163–169.

Posey, D. A. 1997. The Kayapó. Pages 240–254 in IUCN Inter-Commission Task Force on Indigenous Peoples, editor. Indigenous peoples and sustainability: cases and actions. International Books, Utrecht, The Netherlands.

Redman, C. L. 1999. Human impact on ancient environments. University of Arizona Press, Tucson, Arizona, USA.

Retallack, G. 2002. Triassic-Jurassic atmospheric CO 2 spike. Nature 415:387–388.

Whitehouse, N. J. 2000. Forest fires and insects: palaeoentomological research from a subfossil burnt forest. Palaeogeography Palaeoclimatology Palaeoecology 164:231–246.

Williams, N. M., and G. Baines, editors. 1993. Traditional ecological knowledge: wisdom for sustainable development. Australian National University, Canberra, Australia.

Address of Correspondent:
Jeanine Pfeiffer
Graduate Group in Ecology,
Department of Pomology,
University of California,
1 Shields Avenue,
Davis, California 95616 USA
Phone: (530) 219-2838
Fax: (530) 758-1716

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