Human niche construction as a framework for historical ecology

Last changed: 18 May 2018

The fourth seminar is held by Ove Eriksson, professor in plant ecology at Stockholm University.

Watch the recorded lecture here.

Historical ecology is a research field integrating many different academic disciplines, from natural and social sciences, and from the humanities. Although there may be consensus that such an integration is indeed essential for research in historical ecology, this is easier said than done, as the integration implies several challenges. One of them is to find common theoretical and conceptual frameworks, potentially useful for both the separate disciplines and for integrating them.

After having done ecological research in cultural landscapes (mainly semi-natural grasslands) since the early 1990s, I become interested in applying niche construction theory for understanding development of biological richness in these landscapes (e.g. Eriksson 2013 Ecography 36: 403-413). Niche construction theory has been used previously in ecology, and also in archaeology and anthropology, then focusing on humans (thus human niche construction). Niche construction is broadly defined as a process where a 'niche constructing agent' modifies (creates, or destroy) niche space for itself, and for other organisms. Over time, and due to reciprocal interactions, this process alters the realized niche for both the niche constructing agent and for other species. In human niche construction, a specific focus is on a cultural niche. In one of the chapters in the book behind this seminar series (Eriksson, Ekblom, Lane, Lennartsson & Lindholm. Concepts for integrated research in historical ecology. Pages 145-181) we discussed niche construction and related concepts, and their application in historical ecology. In a recent paper (Eriksson & Arnell 2017 Landscape Research 42: 78-88) we used niche construction to analyze the development of infields during the Iron Age.

In this seminar, I will expand on these papers. After a presentation of the background of human niche construction theory, I will discuss placing this theory in an even broader context, cultural evolution, and discuss whether human niche construction is useful as a unifying framework for historical ecology.

Ove ErikssonOve Eriksson is Professor in Plant Ecology at the Department of Ecology, Environment and Plant Sciences, Stockholm University, and apart from historical ecology, he has made research on species diversity in cultural landscapes, plant population dynamics, and ecology and evolution of plant dispersal.