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The Animal Kingdom and Aquatic Ecosystems in the Early Modern World

Sat, March 17, 10:30am to 12:00pm, Riverside Convention Center, RC F

Session Submission Type: Panel


In 2003, John McNeill remarked that “the field of environmental history maintains a terrestrial bias,” leaving the past of large portions of Earth’s aquatic ecosystems shrouded in mystery. This panel joins the burgeoning literature that has sought since then to fill the gaping hole in the field by focusing on the relationship between human communities and the animal communities of rivers and oceans during the early modern era (c. 1500-1800). It analyzes the historical roles of aquatic fauna as food, commodities, and sources of raw material and the complex set of forces that governed its interactions with peoples living along coasts and rivers.

Through case studies from across the globe, papers in the panel highlight the interdependence of terrestrial and aquatic populations and the merits of considering the histories of both together. In Tokugawa Japan, whale baleen provided the essential raw material used for the construction of puppets and dolls and formed an integral aspect of the country’s cultural life. The impact of the Little Ice Age changed the behavior of bowhead whales off Spitsbergen and instigated violent encounters between rival European powers vying to tap into the wealth of Arctic environments. In the Austrian Danube, transformations in sturgeon management intensified exploitation, ultimately leading to sturgeon fishery’s disappearance and readjustments in fish consumption and trading. The history of the water buffalo in the Tigris-Euphrates basin highlights the role of political accommodation and wetland ecosystems in allowing a highly sensitive mammal to thrive in the harsh, arid conditions of the Middle East region.

Piecing together the fragments of textual and natural archival sources, the panel puts forward new interdisciplinary methods to span the terrestrial/aquatic divide and to unveil the mysteries of life below water since the sixteenth century, a world of which most early modern writers were largely oblivious.

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