Historical data, from sources as varied as sediment cores, photography, archaeological artifacts, ships’ logs, diaries, and almanacs, has been used to analyze a number of ecosystems and processes. Examples include changes in sea level, weather patterns, and fire events. The use of historical data allows close analysis of processes and outcomes in the past, with implications for the interpretation and management of present and future ecosystems.
Often missing from such analysis is the historical context: human actions, ideas, feelings, and behavior at particular periods in time. These contexts are not always readily available, at least in the forms with which most historians are familiar. But if we take the concept of the Anthropocene seriously, we must include human history – the kinds of things historians study – in our analyses of past, present and future change. At the same time, historians are looking beyond human-made data to embrace new kinds of evidence, including molecular, evolutionary, archaeological, and paleontological. While many ecologists have employed such evidence, historians are asking different questions, including those of value and scale, and looking at specifically human phenomena. How people talked about, explained, and coped with ecological change in the past can help us formulate resilient systems today.
Examples provided of the fruitful merging of ecological and historical research demonstrate that each discipline can learn from the other. Moving beyond the concept of the baseline, historical research can provide a window into human behavior and actions as well as ecological processes. As the impacts of the Anthropocene deepen, historical analysis will give insight into past, present, and future directions of change.