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Ecological anthropology is a subfield of anthropology that deals with human-environmental (culture-nature) relationships over time and space. It investigates the ways that a population shapes its environment and the subsequent manners in which these relations form the population’s social, economic, and political life (Salzman and Attwood 1996:169). Ecological anthropology applies a systems approach (Ellen 1982; Hardesty 1997; McGee 1996) to the study of the interrelationship between culture and the environment. At the heart of contemporary ecological anthropology is “an understanding that proceeds from a notion of the mutualism of person and environment” (Ingold 1992:40) and the reciprocity between nature and culture (Harvey 1996).
In the 1960s, ecological anthropology first appeared as a response to cultural ecology, a sub-field of anthropology headed by Julian Steward. Steward focused on studying different modes of subsistence as methods of energy transfer and then analysed how they determine other aspects of culture. Culture became the unit of analysis. The first ecological anthropologists explored the idea that humans as ecological populations should be the unit of analysis, and culture became the means by which that population alters and adapts to the environment. It was characterised by systems theory, functionalism and negative feedback analysis (Kottak 1999).
From the beginning various scholars criticised the discipline, saying it inherently was too focused on static equilibriums which ignored change, that it used circular reasoning, and that it oversimplified systems (Vayda and McCay, 1975). One of the current criticisms is that, in its original form, ecological anthropology relies upon cultural relativism as the norm (Kottak 1999). However, in today's world, there are few cultures who are isolated enough to live in a true culturally relative state. Instead, cultures are being influenced and changed by media, governments, NGOs, businesses, etc. In response, the discipline has seen a shift towards applied ecological anthropology, political ecology and environmental anthropology.
One of the leading practitioners within this sub-field of anthropology was Roy Rappaport. He delivered many outstanding works on the relationship between culture and the natural environment in which it grows, especially concerning the role of ritual in the processual relationship between the two. He conducted the majority, if not all, of his fieldwork amongst a group known as the Maring, who inhabit an area in the highlands of Papua New Guinea.