Thought piece: the concept of ‘palimpsest’ to reorient biodiversity

Karine Aigner / WWF-US

The concept of “palimpsest” to reorient biodiversity conservation in a previously written world, an independent thought piece brought to you by Tlacaelel Rivera Núñez

The concept ‘Anthropocene’ has brought to light the significant global impact of human activities on natural systems globally. While the term initially arose as an academic metaphor, in just a few years this concept has influenced an emerging scientific and political agenda oriented toward documenting and denouncing multiple negative anthropogenic factors which have led to global change.

Not all large-scale environmental transformations by human societies have been intrinsically destructive. Many local cultures have existed over time that radically – though constructively – modified the environment in which they inhabit. The idea that human action always degrades the environment may be denominated “Antropogenesis”. Rather than consisting of a naïve image of the ‘Good Anthropocene’, this complementary concept seeks to add to the biodiversity debate a plurality of historic human expressions of environmental construction that orthodox conservationist thinking have invisibilised (‘Anthropo-not-seen’).

One concept of utmost importance in transcending the wilderness ‘pristine syndrome’ of biological conservationism is expressed by the Greek episteme ‘palimpsest’: a manuscript that conserves traces of previous writings that are difficult to observe because the same surface has been rewritten. Archaeology and Historical Ecology have reconceived the concept of palimpsest as a historic landscape that contains successive layers of environmental change in which Homo sapiens act as a keystone species through a variety of cultural expressions. The challenge is to determine the nature and magnitude of the cumulative effects resulting from such transformations.

Research on palimpsests analyses geographies that constitute what the Roman philosopher Cicero denominated a ‘second world’ – environments constructed based on either centuries-old histories (cultural landscapes) or histories developed over millennia (domesticated landscapes), both of which may be historically differentiated from environments resulting from only decades of management (first-nature landscapes).

Historical landscapes – or palimpsests – are constructed through so-called ‘human-mediated disturbances’, which are controlled via intermediate physical and biotic transformations by local cultures. These transformations are through environmental management practices that generally take place at the margin of intensive, industrial, and globalized natural resource use. Principle human-mediated disturbances that have been documented around the world include: 

  • controlled use of fire in such an intensity, frequency, temporality, and scale to achieve total ecosystem rechange; availability of biomass for agricultural purposes in tropical environments; or avoidance of catastrophic natural fire in dense forests;
  • deviation, narrowing, or expansion of rivers, lakes, coastal systems, or wetlands to settle land and/or obtain water for domestic purposes, agriculture, fishing, and aquaculture; and
  • construction of anthropogenic soils by re-depositing sediments, inducing erosion, pyrolysis (slow-combustion), or enhancing the soil microbiota.
Tlacaelel Rivera Núñez: “ecological handprints” of a Maya Lacandon (Hach Winik, “True Men”) Shaman developing the traditional ceremony for the care of nature

Intermediate physical and biotic transformations may result in counterintuitive consequences for biodiversity conservation as based on classic understandings of biodiversity such as Island Biogeography, Refuge Theory, Environmental Gradients, Conservation Biology, Restoration Ecology, and Invasion Biology. Many cases have been documented of human-mediated disturbances impacting the quality of habitats, constructing new ecological niches, contributing to landscape heterogeneity. These disturbances functionally modify source-sink population dynamics, as well as migratory patterns through matrices of high connectivity, and the composition of alpha, beta, and gamma diversities.

Thus, cultural groups with a long history of occupation of a given environment and livelihoods that directly depend on their immediate environment consciously balance ecological functionality with human utility. This results in biocultural landscapes that depend on local management for their maintenance. The approaches of New Ecology, Nonequilibrium Landscapes, and Nature’s Matrix prove fundamental to understanding such processes.

Human-mediated disturbances result from – and lead to – cultural expressions of great importance for preserving biodiversity. Cultural manifestations intimately linked to the biological diversity of a landscape include symbolic expressions such as people’s cosmogonies, social norms and local institutions, oral traditions, systems of inheritance and cultural transmission, ethnolinguistics and metaphorical thought, relations ontologies, ecological ethos, sacred ecologies, and ritual for symbolic and regulatory purposes. In the same way, among these cultural manifestations are material expressions such as traditional ecological knowledge, communitarian territorial zoning, local taxonomic systems, culinary practices, ethnomedicine, and traditional technologies.

Modern societies tend to assume that the future is ahead and the past behind us. However, for some cultural groups, the past guides future possibilities that approach us from behind. Reconceiving biodiversity conservation according to the concept of palimpsest involves the science and technique of learning to read previously recorded landscapes in order to creatively rewrite over them based on 21st-century challenges. Over the ‘Capitalocene’ canvas covered by ecological footprints that geopolitically point to the Global North, “ecological handprints” that signal certain geographies of the Global South represent human legacies that merit space in biodiversity conservation research and practice agendas around the world.

Tlacaelel Rivera Núñez, a PhD Candidate at El Colegio de la Frontera Sur and from Mexico

The content of this thought piece represents the author’s own views and does not necessarily represent the views of the Biodiversity Revisited initiative nor of any of its collaborating institutions.