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Ecological anthropology studies the relations between human beings and their environments. Its foundations were laid by Julian Steward in the mid-twentieth century. Steward emphasised the dynamic, two-way nature of the culture-environment relation, and the importance of the concept of adaptation in understanding it. Steward distinguished 'cultural' from 'biological' ecology on the grounds that the former was about the adaptation of culture as a system existing outside of individual human organisms. By contrast, in the so-called 'new ecology' of the 1960s, culture was seen as the means of environmental adaptation of human populations. Theories developed in animal ecology were considered applicable to humans as well. Drawing on one such theory, of group selection, ecological anthropologists focused on how aspects of cultural behaviour maintain balance or 'homeostasis' in the relations between a local group and its environmental resources, and so promote its long-term survival.

In the 1970s and 1980s, ecological anthropology was overtaken by sociobiology. Emphasising the gene rather than the group as the unit of selection, sociobiologists argued that the adaptive role of cultural behaviour is to contribute to the representation of individuals' genes in future generations. One recent offshoot of sociobiology, 'evolutionary behavioural ecology', is dedicated to showing how adaptive strategies established through natural selection are played out under variable environmental conditions. For example, studies of human foraging have explained the relationship between food procurement patterns and energy returns. During the 1990s, however, a quite different trend has emerged in ecological anthropology. This approach looks at the totality of relations existing between persons and their environments and privileges neither genetics nor culture in explanations of human action and perception.

Text written by Professor Tim Ingold


Postgraduate programmes in the UK


University College London


University of Kent


University of Wales, Lampeter


University of Aberdeen


Recommended Resources



The following trailer is for The Godess and the Computer, a film distributed by the Royal Anthropological Institute.


Directors André Singer and Steven Lansing
Location Indonesia
Released 1989
Length 80 minutes

This film, made for Channel Four Television's Fragile Earth series, follows two American irrigation scientists who are seeking to understand the ancient Balinese irrigation system and forestall further environmental problems. Using traditional methods of cultivation, a single plot of irrigated land can produce tons of rice, year after year, century after century, with no added fertilizer and no ecological degradation. To understand why, biologist Jim Kremer, takes us into the paddies with laboratory tools, showing how the rice pond becomes a miniature aquatic ecosystem which produces abundant energy for the plants, and how "development" can threaten this careful balance.



Human Planet is an 8-part British television documentary series produced by the BBC in collaboration with Discovery and BBC Worldwide. The series explores how humans have adapted to life in various environments and the challenges and ingenuity of communities who thrive in the some of the most remote or hostile regions on Earth.







The Royal Anthropological Institute (RAI) has one of the largest ethnographic film libraries in Europe. Films are available for hire, sale or loan,for educational and academic purposes. Click here for a list of films the RAI distributes on Environmental Anthropology.

General - Stacy McGrath provides a good general overview of ecological anthropology. - Catherine Marquette provides a general overview of cultural ecology. - The Ecology Global Network delivers ecological news and information through various media delivery platforms.




Sustainability and Communities of Place
Edited by Maida, A. Carl (Berghahn Publishers, 2011)

The Environment in Anthropology
Haenn,N. and Wilk, R. (Eds) (NYU Press, 2005)

Environmental Anthropology: A Historical Reader
Dove, R. M. and Carpenter,C. (Eds) (Wiley- Blackwell, 2007)


Articles & Online Journals
- an interview with an environmental anthropologist. - an article on ecological ethnobotany by anthropologist Iain Davidson-Hunt from the University of Manitoba. - an online peer reviewed journal published by Resillience Alliance.
- an online peer reviewed journal by graduate students of the University of Georgia.


Professional Organisations, Groups & Associations

Anthropology and The Environment -A section of the American Anthropological Association – for anthropologists interested in ecology, the environment and environmentalism.

Anthropological Centre for Training and Research on Global Environmental Change – an interdisciplinary training and research centre on human dimensions of global environmental change.

Centre for International Forestry Research- an international research and global knowledge institution committed to conserving forests and improving the livelihoods of people in the tropics.

Environmental Anthropology-An interest group of The Society of Applied Anthropology.


Disclaimer: The above information is provided for information and guidance only. It should not be interpreted as endorsement or otherwise by the Royal Anthropological Institute (RAI) for any external institution listed.  Furthermore, the RAI accepts no responsibility for material created by external parties or the content of external websites.