Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

Fall 1998


Published in Great Plains Research Vol. 8 No. 2, 1998. Copyright ©1998 The Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska – Lincoln. Used by permission.


While some environmental historians have used the insights of the natural sciences in their historical work, Emily Russell, offering a scientist's perspective, challenges ecologists to incorporate historians' methods and insights into their studies. In People and the Land through Time, Russell outlines working principles for the "historical ecologist," a scholar who traces past human impacts on particular ecosystems. She makes it clear that her emphasis is on ecological systems rather than humans, but argues that ecosystems can't be fully understood without accounting for how human actions have affected them.

The book provides an introduction to methods and a variety of case studies showing historical ecology at work. Part I, "Questions and Clues," explains why human history is relevant in ecological studies and introduces the types of historical sources ecologists ought to use. Historians would find the source discussion pretty obvious, but Russell does offer an engrossing analysis of varieties of information and how they might be flawed. Any student or scholar without prior exposure to historical method would find this section useful. Toward the end of Part I, Russell begins connecting documentary and field evidence to show how the two work together to give a more complete picture of an ecosystem. Non-ecologists can learn from this section because Russell describes important scientific methods, such as pollen analysis.