Human Ecology

, 37:491 | Cite as

The Cultural Keystone Concept: Insights from Ecological Anthropology

  • Simon Platten
  • Thomas HenfreyEmail author


The concept of the keystone species has a long history in ecological analysis, although its validity remains controversial. Anthropological researchers have recently coined the term cultural keystone species, but have not demonstrated any significant differences from existing treatments of culturally important species. We define cultural keystones according to their systemic function, as having essential roles in maintaining any level of complexity within a social–ecological system. Examples include bitter cassava consumption among lowland South American groups such as the Wapishana in Guyana, and commercial cultivation of carrots in Rurukan Village in Minahasa, Indonesia. These examples are both essential at one level of systemic reproduction: within the domestic and village economy in the cassava case, and carrots within regional markets. While each is centred upon a single biological species, the cultural keystone itself is not this species, but a complex incorporating several material and non-material system elements.


Cultural keystone species Cultural significance Biocultural diversity Social–ecological systems Ethnobiology 



Thanks to Roy Ellen and Michael Fischer for instructive advice and comments during the writing of this paper, to Rachel Kaleta for introducing us to the keystone concept, to our friends in each of the research locations, and to two anonymous reviewers. Simon Platten’s fieldwork was supported by an ESRC-NERC studentship. Thomas Henfrey was supported during fieldwork by an APFT studentship from EC DG VIII, and during writing by a Hunt postdoctoral fellowship from the Wenner Gren Foundation.


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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of KentCanterburyUK
  2. 2.Department of AnthropologyDurham UniversityDurhamUK

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