Looking at the Landscape

Nancy Marie Brown
April 18, 2005

"Landscape" to some people is a beautiful view. Others use it as a verb, for an elaborate kind of gardening.

To the anthropologists, archaeologists, demographers, geographers, and economists who met last weekend at Dartmouth College for the annual meeting of the Society for Economic Anthropology, "landscape" is shorthand for how people perceive their environment and interact with it.

Over the two day meeting, researchers from 36 universities presented 41 papers and posters on how economics affects the landscape on a local level; five were Penn State projects located in Belize, Iceland, Orkney, and Bangladesh.

kelp drying

"Across history, humans have extensively changed their environments. All environments are essentially landscaped," said Tim Earle of Northwestern University, the conference's keynote speaker. "Reconfiguring the landscape is a primary way in which people negotiate with each other, fight with each other, and organize ourselves. All of human existence somehow comes back to the landscape. It's one of the primary ways in which we change things—or resist change."

How we landscape the earth reveals our notions of property and power. By building terraces or irrigation canals, by cutting down forests to make pastures, by clustering our houses close together or spreading them far apart, and by what we do with our waste we determine how complex and productive our society will be.

Comparing landscapes over time shows how this complexity evolved. It also carries a warning. Said Earle, "The most important conclusion I see from archaeology is that environmental disasters are heavily manmade."

The Maya Collapse

Tim Murtha, a Penn State assistant professor in landscape architecture, looked at the most ancient landscape, that of the Mayan city of Caracol.

Caracol, in western Belize, is famous for a 40-meter-tall palace, Sky House, and hieroglyphics describing a 400-year history. Up to 80,000 people lived there at its peak.

To early archaeologists, Murtha explained, "The Maya seemed to be a contradiction. They were a high-art society with a backward form of agriculture. They relied on human labor and hand tools." With no animals to supply fertilizer, the Maya must have left some fields fallow for long periods.

Beginning in the 1960s Penn State archaeologists William Sanders and David Webster overturned that theory: The Maya had a sophisticated agriculture, which included building terraces to control erosion.

"The scale and intensity of the terraces have overwhelmed scholars," said Murtha. "There are too many terraces and the terraces seem too large for simple farmers to have constructed them." He asked, "Was this strictly a top-down process? Were the terraces constructed and maintained by the elite? Or bottom-up? Were households responding to population pressure?"

Murtha used a computer-based Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technique to answer the question. "GIS frames the environment," he explained. "You can take overlapping behaviors and see how they interact within the framework."

Murtha built a GIS model that combined facts about the land with climate data and agricultural management plans. "We produced 315 simulations and ran each one for 100 years." His conclusion? Terracing was bottom-up.

With no terraces, the fallow period was five years. If cropped every year, the slopes would erode away in 50 to 100 years. "By at least AD 250," Murtha said, "Maya farmers would have witnessed some erosion. Over 500 years they constructed these terraces. The labor to build them was negligible. But the more you cultivate, the more you have to weed, so agriculture became increasingly more labor-intensive over this period."

Nor did the terraces increase the fields' productivity; they only held back erosion. "The point of the paper is that the elites couldn't have just walked up to a farmer and said, Terrace here because we need more food." Even when highly engineered, the landscape could not sustain any higher production. And that, Murtha believes, may have led to the Maya's collapse. He is currently comparing Caracol with another Maya site, Tikal, to see if the pattern holds.

The Vikings in Iceland


In Viking Age Iceland, erosion, scarce food, and overpopulation also led to a society's collapse.

Iceland was settled between 870 and 930 by Viking chieftains determined to stay free from the Norwegian king's rule. According to the famous medieval Icelandic sagas, they divided Iceland into 36 chiefdoms and ruled jointly for 300 years. Then civil war broke out.

In 1264 Iceland became part of the kingdom of Norway. The society changed from a relatively egalitarian system, in which the Viking chieftains had fed and housed all their followers together in large longhouses, to a hierarchical state system in which each family fended for itself and little concern was shown for the poor.

Penn State anthropologist Paul Durrenberger believes that this social change happened about 200 years earlier, at the height of Iceland's Golden Age. John Steinberg, a UCLA archaeologist who collaborates with Durrenberger, presented their work at the conference; a third coauthor was Doug Bolender, a graduate student at Northwestern.

Using a suite of remote sensing tools, the researchers are mapping all the Viking Age farms in one valley of northern Iceland. They have discovered a surprising number of very small farms established between 1000 and 1104. The small farms cluster around the larger ones. By comparing the large and small farms' resources—size of hayfield, storage areas, number of cow stalls, living space—the team hopes to determine if the small farms were self-sufficient.

Durrenberger predicts they were not. Erosion and overgrazing had reduced the Icelanders' ability to feed themselves, and the chieftains had learned that a follower ate more than his or her labor was worth.

Viking longhouse

Said Steinberg, "The chieftains squeezed their followers out of the longhouses. It's a sign of a developing economy trying to get more production out of people."

In Iceland's fragile landscape, the tactic failed. Durrenberger argues that the civil war, and the subsequent loss of Iceland's independence, wasn't the cause of this economic change, but the effect.

Times Change on Orkney

North of Scotland, a team of Penn State researchers is charting a similar economic change as small, labor-intensive family farms on the Orkney Islands give way to large, mechanized ones.

What will happen to the islands' traditional culture? The Penn State team is answering that question by cross-linking 300 years of birth, marriage, and death records to the physical layouts of farms and to the memories of old people whose families worked the fields there for generations. The project is run by Jim Wood and Pat Johnson, both professors of anthropology and demography. Penn State undergraduate students learning how to do fieldwork join them each summer, organized by graduate student Corey Sparks. (For one student's report on seaweed as a cash crop, read Home to Orkney.)


"On Orkney," says Sparks, "We have all the information we need to link the living population to the people of 300 years ago. We can see how economic fluctuations affected individual households."

By connecting the physical landscape with the population history, adds Johnson, "You can understand how farms grow and contract, how households grow and contract, how the uses of the land change, and how the larger economic system affects a single household."

Since the 1700s, Orkney has changed from subsistence farms to cattle ranches that need few workers. After peaking in the 1800s, the population has fallen. Some islands have been abandoned and others are, in Sparks' words, "going extinct." The Penn State team hopes that what they learn will help the islanders find a new source of revenue—and jobs for their young people—in cultural tourism.

"We could not possibly do this if people weren't interested in their history and the whole demographic question," says Johnson. "They know that their population is disappearing. They're very much aware."

The Force of Custom in Bangladesh

Azizur Molla, a Penn State graduate student in anthropology and demography, introduced his research on the link between culture and landscape in modern Bangladesh with a story about himself.


"When I was a university student in Bangladesh, studying public health and social welfare," he said, "I used to go visit my village, and my mom always sent me to the river to wash. 'That's the place for men to take a shower,' she said. 'But Mom,' I explained, 'this water is dirty! The cows shower in there. The cows poop in there!' But you can't disobey your mom, that wasn't the way we did things. So I had to shower with the cattle."

Molla's study explains why so many campaigns to improve sanitation—and thus reduce childhood diseases—in Bangladeshi villages have failed. How the villagers view their landscape (in this case their water sources) determines how receptive they are to the suggestions of health professionals.

Of 34 drinking water samples, Molla found all were highly contaminated with fecal matter. Traditional Bangladeshi latrines are not sanitary. Newer, non-polluting latrines, even if provided free, are not used properly because they go against custom. Traditionally, latrines are sited near a pond, which is then used for washing hands—with the result that the pond becomes polluted.

Through surveys and interviews, Molla found that the level of education of family members did not determine if they would use the new-style latrines. Instead, he said, "The key is to get to the moms." Once mothers are convinced that the new ways will keep their children healthier, the culture will change. His own mother is a case in point: She no longer makes him shower with the cows. "I educated my mom. It took me several years, but I did it. And now all the neighbors do what she does."

The conference, "Economies and the Transformation of Landscape," will result in a book to be edited by Lisa Cliggett and Chris Pool of the University of Kentucky and published by the Society for Economic Anthropology. Nancy Marie Brown is former editor of Research/Penn State and a freelance writer in East Burke, Vermont.

Last Updated April 18, 2005