Book Summary: “Introduction to Cultural Ecology” by Sutton and Anderson

Title: Introduction to Cultural Ecology
Author: Mark Q. Sutton and E. N. Anderson
Scope: 4.5 stars
Readability: 3.5 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

If you enjoy this summary, please support the author by buying the book.

Topic of Book

The authors provide an introductory text on the ways in which culture is used by people to adapt to their natural environment.

If you would like to learn more about different types of societies, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

My Comments

I believe that society types are one of the most important concepts for understanding human history. I use the term widely in my book “From Poverty to Progress“. While widely used in the field of anthropology and cultural ecology, the concept has not caught on among historians.

While the authors use slightly different terminology, this book gives an excellent introduction to the concept.

Key Take-aways

  • Humans use technology and culture to create niches that enable societies to survive in a specific natural environment.
  • Among the most important categories of “niche” (or what I call society types elsewhere) are:
    • Hunting and Gathering
    • Pastoralism
    • Horticulture
    • Intensive Agriculture

Important Quotes from Book

Ecology is the study of the interaction between living things and their environment. Human ecology is the study of the relationships and interactions among humans, their biology, their cultures, and their physical environments.

The broad field of human ecology includes two major subdivisions. Human biological ecology is the study of the biological aspect of the human/environment relationship, and cultural ecology is the study of the ways in which culture is used by people to adapt to their environment.

Fundamental to any inquiry in human ecology are the concepts of change and adaptation to change.

The first major theory regarding the interaction between culture and environment, one that has been in circulation since the time of classical Greece, is environmental determinism, or environmentalism. This idea basically states that environment mechanically dictates how a culture adapts. In the twentieth century, the idea was championed by Ellsworth Huntington.

It had long been recognized that cultures changed over time, although it was not understood how or why. Not until after the new theory of biological evolution (Darwin 1859) had been proposed did a comprehensive theory of cultural evolution develop, though an earlier, less developed form had been created by Adam Smith and others.

The first major theory in anthropology was the concept that cultures evolved upward along a single line. This idea was developed by Lewis H. Morgan (largely from Adam Smith’s work), amplified by Edward B. Tylor and others, and later known as unilinear cultural evolution (UCE)… This view encompassed the nineteenth-century notion of progress. Morgan saw human life as a search for “livelihood”—that is, subsistence: food, clothing, and shelter… Morgan held that certain inventions, such as the bow and arrow, pottery, and agriculture, were keystones in cultural evolution. Each one led to a new, “higher” phase of society.

By the early twentieth century, the unilinear cultural evolutionary model was in trouble. Key postulates, such as the idea that herding preceded agriculture, were not standing up under investigation. Worse, the simple scheme of progress as proceeding through neat, regular stages was inadequate to deal with the accumulating ethnographic data. It was also realized that food was not the only thing people got from the environment. Early theories dealt almost exclusively with food. But, in fact, other activities, such as art and religion, also draw on resources.

It soon became obvious that evolution was not always unidirectional.

It was realized that if cultural evolution were to survive as a theory, it would have to be viewed as following many lines. Thus, Julian Steward (1955), the founder of cultural ecology, proposed multilinear cultural evolution.

Steward (1955) introduced an evolutionary scheme based on increasing sociocultural complexity. The least complex was the band, consisting of small, relatively mobile hunting and gathering groups with informal leaders. Next was the tribe, consisting of larger, more or less settled groups of hunter-gatherers or incipient agriculturalists (horticulturalists or pastoralists) with several settlements and relatively formal decision-making authority but still no centralized authority. Third was the chiefdom, which had large, sedentary populations (usually of agriculturalists), elites, some social stratification, and leaders— usually the heads of dominant lineages—with the authority to impose their will. Last was the state (sometimes called “civilization,” a highly loaded term), a large and complex system based on grain agriculture with larger and more dense populations, complex social and political structures, elaborate record keeping, urban centers or cities, central authority, monumental architecture, and specialization. While there has been much criticism of this scheme, it is still widely utilized by anthropologists to describe political entities and ecological adaptations.

There now seems to be a growing acceptance of some sort of scheme of increasing complexity, or at least complication.

As anthropologists began to accumulate more general knowledge of culture and detailed knowledge of specific cultures, it became apparent that culture was highly adaptive, that most environments had been modified by humans, that there was a variety of responses possible to most environmental situations, and that cultures were considerably influenced by other cultures. There was no illusion that environment did not influence culture, but it became clear that it did not dictate it. In possibilism, the environment is seen as a limiting or enabling factor rather than a determining factor. The environment may deny certain possibilities, such as the use of snow houses in Arabia, but will open a variety of other possibilities, such as houses of wood, grass, mud, cloth, stone, or skins, all of which occur in Arabia. The culture makes the choice of which of the possibilities to employ.

The culture also includes limiting factors, including technology, belief systems, and extracultural relations… Possibilism describes an interactive process between culture and the environment.

Most of these views of culture assumed (with Smith, Marx, and Morgan) that culture was primarily a storehouse of ideas about making a living or a set of plans and adaptations for obtaining food, clothing, shelter, and other economic goods. The counterview, espoused by Franz Boas and most of his students, was that culture was primarily a matter of communication: it was the storehouse of methods for telling other people about one’s thoughts, emotions, and ideas. Thus language, arts, stories, texts, and ideas were the main concerns of cultural anthropologists. These differences survive today within anthropology.

Cultural ecology was born when Julian Steward and his students felt a need to accommodate between a basically materialist or economic approach and a recognition that communication was indeed critical and could not be ignored. The earlier students tended toward materialism, but later students and others influenced by Steward have raised the status of communication, text, and idea.

Cultural materialism is a practical, rather straightforward, functionalist approach to anthropology with a focus on the specific hows and whys of culture. It is a direct and explicit continuation of the Smith-Morgan tradition in anthropology. It is based on the idea that “human social life is a response to the practical problems of earthly existence” (Harris 1979:ix) and that these issues can be studied in a practical way. Cultural materialism emphasizes very empirical phenomena, such as technology, economy (e.g., food), environment, and population; takes an evolutionary perspective; and has an unwavering commitment to the rules of Western science.

Marvin Harris (1966, 1968) espoused a concept of “techno-environmental materialism” that initially held that all cultural institutions could be explained by direct material payoff.

Let us conclude with this thought: people and cultures must make a “profit” to survive. No hard-and-fast rules exist on how much of a profit, on whether an adaptation is actually optimal, or on whether the decisions made are the best possible ones. The adaptation must only be good enough. If one culture is competing with another, its adaptation must be better than the other one to survive; there is no rule that it must be exceptional, just better than the competition. In general, we believe that most humans make enough of a caloric profit on the biological side of human ecology that they can generally afford to do whatever they want on the cultural side.

Subsistence is not simply a list of foods but a complex system that includes resources, technology, social and political organizations, settlement patterns, and all of the other aspects of making a living. Subsistence is one of the vast complexities of human behavior largely related to culture.

Technology, including the ability to make and use tools, is a major factor that separates humans from other animals, although some other animals do make and use simple tools. It is mostly through technology, rather than biology, that humans have adapted to virtually every ecosystem on Earth.

The environment consists of the surroundings within which an organism interacts.

A biome is a large-scale, broad region of similar temperature, rainfall, and biology.

An environmental zone, or ecozone, is a geographic area defined by fairly specific biotic communities (a plant association dominated by a certain species) within biomes. Thus, a river running through a savanna would contain a riverine ecozone within the savanna biome. The definition of any particular ecozone is based on judgmental criteria, depending on the goals of the researcher. Ecozones are most commonly defined based on dominant plant communities.

An ecotone is the geographic intersection of—as well as the transition between— ecozones.

Each species occupies both a niche and a habitat. In biology, the niche of a species is broadly defined by what it eats and how it reproduces, somewhat akin to how a species makes a living.

The geographic location where a species lives and operates is called its habitat.

Humans have come to occupy and dominate most terrestrial habitats and through the use of technology will modify a habitat to suit their needs and even create artificial habitats, such as cities.

Humans occupy a very broad niche in the biological sense. But perhaps a better way to view it is that humans occupy a great many niches (not to mention most habitats). One very general way to define human niches is by using simple subsistence systems, such as hunter-gatherer, herder, or farmer.

Hunting and Gathering:

Anthropologists often classify cultures based primarily on general subsistence strategy, generally the most visible or important aspect of how they obtain their living, a definition primarily based on ecology rather than social criteria (although these are related). Thus, those cultures that make their primary living from obtaining and using “wild” foods are classified as hunter-gatherers… Until about eleven thousand years ago, all the people in the world practiced a hunting and gathering economy, and for most of human history we were hunters and gatherers.

Hunter-gatherers exploit wild resources rather than domesticated ones as their primary source of food. Resources often have two dimensions: time (when they are available) and space (where they are located in the landscape). Like all groups, hunter-gatherers must solve the problem of getting resources and people together. Herein lies the major complexity in the study of hunter-gatherers. Hunter-gatherers would more likely be tethered to certain resources, such as springs, due to their technology and transport capability.

Four basic generalizations can be made for hunter-gatherers. First, they tend to underproduce: to not exploit all that is exploitable, and to have relatively few material possessions. Second, they routinely share food. Third, they tend to be egalitarian (this is less true of those with larger settlements). Finally, they commonly employ a division of labor in which men do much of the hunting and women do much of the gathering.


Horticulture is small-scale agriculture involving the use of relatively small fields, plots, and gardens. Groups practicing horticulture as their primary mode of livelihood will often have populations of many hundreds to many thousands, live in one place all year, and frequently have a tribal- or chiefdom-level sociopolitical organization. Some hunter-gatherers will employ aspects of horticultural practices as a minor part of their subsistence system. (The term horticulture is also used to refer to gardening and fruit growing within industrial agricultural systems.)

Horticulture generally involves the use of individual human labor and small hand tools such as digging sticks or shovels rather than mass labor, draft animals, or equipment such as plows or tractors. Crops are grown for mostly personal consumption, although some of them might be traded or given to a central authority, such as a chief. Intensity ranges from the tiny plots of some primarily hunting and gathering groups to the extremely intensive and sophisticated systems of the Maya and Polynesians.

Both domestic plants and animals are raised by horticulturalists, but the emphasis is on the production of plant crops. Crops are mainly grown in small fields, called gardens, and such gardens may be solitary or part of a larger system of gardens. In addition, various small domesticated animals, such as pigs, chickens, and dogs, are often raised by horticulturalists. Wild resources may also form an important component of a horticultural economy.


Pastoralism is that form of agriculture in which its practitioners specialize in, and obtain their primary subsistence from, the husbandry of one or a few domesticated animal species. These species are invariably herbivores such as cattle, horses, sheep, llamas, alpacas, goats, camels, reindeer, and similar animals. Plant cultivation often forms one component of pastoralism but is not generally dominant. In some cases, however, such as reindeer, the species of focus is not domesticated.

Until recently, pastoralists occupied a large portion of the Old World, extending from East Africa to China to Siberia. Spooner defined five broad ecological zones occupied by pastoralists in the Old World, characterized by the primary types of animals raised. Pastoralists relying primarily on single species of animals occupy four broad regions of the Old World: (1) northern Eurasia, where reindeer are the primary stock; (2) the eastern Mediterranean region, where sheep are the major animal; (3) portions of North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, where camels are the primary stock; and (4) sub-Saharan Africa, where cattle are the main stock. The fifth general region, where pastoralists work multiple stock, including horses, occupies the broad arid region extending from North Africa east across Southwest Asia and to Mongolia.

There are only a few native pastoral groups in the New World.

Three major types of pastoralism can be defined. These are (1) nomadic, in which groups are very mobile and depend almost entirely on their animals; (2) seminomadic, in which groups are less mobile and animal products are supplemented by horticulture; and (3) semisedentary, in which groups are not very mobile and horticulture forms a major component of the economy. Two other forms, herdsman husbandry and sedentary animal husbandry, are pastoral components of larger agricultural systems.

Intensive Agriculture:

Intensive agriculture is a large-scale and complex system of farming and animal husbandry often involving the use of animal labor, equipment, water diversion techniques, and the production of surplus food. Intensive agriculture represents a significant shift in the scale and scope of agriculture and reflects a fundamental change in the relationship between people and the environment. The use of animals and machines to supplement human labor is significant in intensive agriculture, although there are a few intensive systems that rely solely on human labor.

The most dramatic difference between horticulture and intensive agriculture is that of scale. Intensive agriculturalists generally cultivate larger quantities of land, have larger populations, and impact the environment to a much greater degree. The use of animals to supplement the labor of humans significantly increased the scale and intensity of agriculture.

In horticultural and pastoral societies, humans provide the vast majority of the labor needed to produce food, including the clearing of land, constructing fields, and planting and harvesting crops. People, by themselves, can do only so much. However, as animals and machines began to supplement human labor, the scale of agriculture increased dramatically, and ecozones previously too difficult for agriculture could be colonized by farmers, who often displaced other groups already in those ecosystems.

If you would like to learn more about society types, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s