DOI: 10.2307/3673389
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Toward a Cultural Ecology of Mountains: The Central Andes and the Himalaya Compared

David Guillet

Intervention (counseling)
The comparative study of mountain populations has become a major focus of attention in the last decade (Sacherer, 1973; Rhoades and Thompson, 1975; Brush, 1976; Pawson andJest, 1978; Thomas, 1979; Novoa and Posner, 1981; L'homme et son environnement, 1982). Researchers steeped in the ethnology of a mountain area have begun to discover intriguing similarities in the cultural patterns of other mountain areas, and these discoveries have led to a search for explanations of the parallels. Furthermore, it is increasingly being recognized that mountains are fragile environments in which human intervention may create serious resource degeneration in the form of erosion, landslides, silting of rivers, and the loss of soil fertility. This potential for environmental collapse is most apparent in the Nepal Himalaya (Eckholm, 1976; Cronin, 1979:198-222; Ives, 1979:13-14). Because of this new awareness, mountain areas are being monitored for evidence of impending environmental breakdown. Anthropologists are playing a key role in this effort: the fact that the inhabitants of these areas are often non-Western, tribal or peasant, and exotic leads environmental scientists to request assistance in analysing local resource and crisis management (Unesco, 1977; Novoa and Posner, 1981; Glaser and Celecia, 1981). Such analysis has shown that the relationship between human intervention and environmental breakdown is complex. Comparative study of the impact of human intervention on mountain environments is helpful in isolating the major variables involved. The shift to a comparative frame of reference has not been an easy one, for several reasons. First, most studies of mountain populations have been particularistic, focusing on an individual village or herding unit and avoiding generalization (Rhoades and Thompson, 1975). When generalization occurs, too often it is of the micro-macrocosm variety. For example, in both the Central Andes and the Himalaya, sophisticated computer simulations have been based on a single well-documented, quantified ethnogra hic study of a rural community (Blankenship and Thomas, 1977; Banskota, 1979; McRae, 1979; Brandt et al. 1981), and these simulations have been taken to represent the whole range of rural communities and proposed as bases for policy That the part can stand for the whole in these cases must be erified empirically rather than s mply assum d. Second, the few attempts to generalize to he regional or a higher level have flaws that become critical wh n cross-cu tural models of mountain adaptations are gen rated. Third, the search for an explanation of a cult ral pattern found to be common across a range of mountain populations often calls for revision of an accepted explana ion of the cultural pattern in a particular context. For example, if a particular pattern of marriage or kinship is discovered to be common to widely separated mountain populations, then one may be forced to rethink an explanation based on superstructural factors, which under the circumstances might imply an extreme form of diffusionism or an argument for the psychic unity of mankind. Partly as a result, a materialist perspective has emerged in recent comparativ work on mountain populations: much as in studies of Arctic societie , a fragile, low-yielding environment is seen to play a major though not ultimately determining role. In this paper, I will attempt to assess past statements conc rning the nature of cultural adaptations to mountains and bring recent research to bear on a new approach. The ethnographic literature on the Central Andes and the Himalaya will provide the basis for the discussion. These a e both regions of high mountains located in the tropical and sem -tropical latitudes, the location of the highest human settlements. While the conclusions put forward in this paper apply primarily to tropical high mountains, it is increasingly being recognized that the optimal units of comparison in moun ain studies are vertical zones defined in terms of land use rath r than entirely on the basis of elevation (Brush, 1976; Soffer, 1982). Thus, future comparative work should make it possible to test these conclusions on mountain populations in the temperate zones of the northern and southern hemispheres as well as in other tropical high mountains. 'Originally published in Current Anthropology, Vol. 24, No. 5, 1983, pp. 561-574.
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Toward a Cultural Ecology of Mountains: The Central Andes and the Himalaya Compared” is a paper by David Guillet published in the journal Mountain Research and Development in 1986. It was published by BioOne (International Mountain Society and United Nations University). It has an Open Access status of “closed”. You can read and download a PDF Full Text of this paper here.