Human adaptive strategies

Human survival on the northern coastline of New Guinea Island is an ancient and unending contest between two unavoidable realities. 

By far the best place to live on this coast is the biologically complex and productive lagoonal shoreline. Unfortunately, this same coastal environment is also perhaps the worst place to be when natural disasters strike, for example when a devastating tsunami hit this coast in 1998. 

We now know that such disasters are more common and deadly than we realized when we first began working on this coast in 1990. We are now investigating the relationships between long-term landscape change, transient and unpredictable environmental impacts, and human practice. 

More rigorous understanding of the natural, human-built, and decision-making contexts of human survival on this coast will contribute to unraveling the complexities of coupled natural and human systems in other comparable places, such as the Andean region, where studies have similarly led to the working hypothesis that infrequent, but severe, catastrophic events have played a major role in framing how people shape and are in turn shaped by the complex interactions among their natural and social worlds. 

Far from being simple, underdeveloped, or "primitive," we think it can be shown that the character and extent of human responses to environmental uncertainty on this coast constitute an enduring, nuanced, and effective set of strategies for responding to multiple transient and longer-term environmental changes. 

Human adaptation is a classic example of what has been more generally termed ecological niche construction. Niche construction occurs when an organism modifies its relationships with its surroundings by actively changing one or more of the factors in its environment, either by physically perturbing factors at its current location in space and time, or by relocating to a different space-time address, thereby exposing itself to different factors. 

Human beings have many different, sometimes alternative, ways of constructing safe places to survive and prosper. We now see that the north coast of New Guinea is an ideal model system for studying adaptive strategies making human survival possible over thousands of years in constantly changing and unstable environments. 

We think there are two specific anticipatory human strategies deployed on this coastline. 

The first strategy we have been documenting anthropologically since 1990óis what we have termed inherited friendship, although it is more commonly labeled in the anthropological literature as trade friendships or partnerships.




Near the mouth of the Sepik River, 1997

Using river water to extract edible starch from the pulverized inner pith of the sago palm tree ( 1997, John Edward Terrell)



















The second strategy, which is as yet inadequately documented for this coast, is the transgenerational management of resources.  Simply put, people living along this coastline invest time, labor, learning, and knowledge in planting, tending, and protecting a diverse array of species—most famously, certain tree species—even though they know that these species may take years, possibly generations, to mature and become available for harvesting. We think they do so because they know they themselves are benefiting from—or "living off of"—what their forebears invested in trying to assure that their children and their children's children would have a broad array of vital and socially important resources to draw upon.


For further discussion, please see:

John Edward Terrell  (2002).  Tropical Agroforestry, Coastal Lagoons, and Holocene Prehistory in Greater Near Oceania.  Monbusho International Symposium. In Shuji Yoshida and Peter J. Matthews (eds.), Vegeculture in Eastern Asia and Oceania, 195-216.  JCAS Symposium Series No. 16. Osaka:  Japan Centre for Area Studies.

John Edward Terrell  (2006).  Human biogeography:  Evidence of our place in nature.  Journal of Biogeography 33: 2088-2098.

John Edward Terrell  (2008).  Island Biogeography:   Implications and applications for archaeology.   In Handbook of Landscape Archaeology, Bruno David and Julian Thomas (eds.), pp. 141-148.  Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek.