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Examining Stereotypes

Environment and Culture: How Do We Best Explain How Societies Change?

In trying to explain how and why ancient societies changed, it is very common to invoke the idea of environmental factors as the main driving force. This idea – often called “environmental determinism” – provides a very tempting approach to understanding major transformations, like the origins of agriculture in the Middle East or the collapse of the Maya civilization in Mesoamerica.

However, it is much more accurate to think of the environment as creating constraints and opportunities within which people make the decisions that lead to societal changes. People experience the environment through a “cultural filter”. Their cultural values determine what they perceive as edible resources, and what they would define as unbearable stress. For example – native Americans and European Americans would have looked at the exact same environments, and each would have seen very different sets of resources that they considered “good to eat”.

By the same token, the way that a society is organized determines how severely it might be affected by environmental stresses. For example – if an area in the Middle East were experiencing a severe drought, a group of nomadic Bedouin sheep-herders would simply pick up and move their tents and flocks to a better-watered location, even if it were 100 km away. By contrast, the inhabitants of a farming village in the same area would be tied to their land and unable to move. For the villagers, the drought would have been a true disaster because their social and economic organization tied them to a single resource and prevented them from moving. In other words, the degree to which the exact same environmental conditions (drought) would have been perceived as either more or less stressful would depend on cultural factors (e.g. whether the people were nomadic herders or sedentary farmers).

In trying to explain the origins of food production in the Neolithic, it is important to remember that while environmental factors and population growth were very important, ultimately it was human, culturally-based decisions that led to domestication. Faced with the drying and cooling environment of the Younger Dryas, some Natufian groups chose to abandon sedentism and return to a nomadic hunting and gathering way of life, while others chose to remain sedentary and intensify their cultivation of wild wheat and barley. The second pathway led to domestication, while the first did not.  When we see that people can make choices, we cannot consider the domestication of plants and animals as either inevitable or as something that was determined by the environment.

Supporting Links:

Briney, Amanda. “Environmental Determinism: The Controversial Topic, Later Replaced by Environmental Possibilism.” Link to resourcenew window (accessed April 27, 2010).

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