Did traditional cultures live in harmony with nature? Lessons from Angkor, Cambodia
By Terry Lustig, Roland Fletcher, Matti Kummu, Christophe Pottier and Dan Penny
Modern Myths of the Mekon, edited by Kummu, M., Keskinen, M. and Varis, O (2008)
Abstract: Archaeology, ethnology and related ﬁelds have comprehensively debunked the myth that so-called ‘traditional’ societies lived in harmony with the natural environment. However, it is often assumed that pre-industrial societies impacted on the environment in a way that was less invasive, or of a smaller scale, than modern developed or developing societies. Recent archaeological and geomorphological research at the medieval Khmer capital of Angkor reveals that the impact of this low-density pre-industrial city on the natural environment was profound.
Introduction: Angkor in Cambodia, previously seen as a collection of great temples and separate town enclosures, has now been shown to be a vast low-density pre-industrial urban complex. The city of Angkor covered over 1,000 km2, and may have been the most extensive city of its kind in the world. Now a World Heritage site, Angkor contains hundred of temple structures including the renowned 12th century Angkor Wat. The impact of this preindustrial city on the natural environment is both immediately obvious and of great signiﬁcance for the past and the future. The impact is most clearly demonstrated in the massive, convoluted and delicately balanced system of canals, reservoirs and embankments that were used to regulate and distribute surface waters. In their efforts to control water ﬂow, the Angkorian ‘engineers’ diverted water from existing river systems, sometimes resulting in entirely new catchments. The adverse environmental consequences of these profound modiﬁcations to the natural environment may have played a decisive role in destabilising Angkor, leading to its eventual collapse.