David Russell Harris (1930 – 2013) geographer and archaeologist
Martin Jones, writing in The Guardian on Friday, 17 January 2014, reports on the death of David Russell Harris, geographer and archaeologist –
The beginnings of farming, 10,000 or more years ago, have often been discussed in relation to a few discrete “centres of origin”, for example the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, and Central America. That we are now aware of a far richer, deeper, more diverse history of plant and animal exploitation right across the globe is thanks, in large part, to the contribution of David Harris, who has died aged 83.
Five decades of academic life took David through departments of geography, anthropology, botany and archaeology, and his fieldwork took him to each of the world’s inhabited continents. A seminal moment in his career came during a journey through the Venezuelan rainforest in early 1968. While travelling in a dugout canoe to a particularly remote part of the upper Orinoco, he was able to observe and record the sophisticated forest management practised by the Waika Indians.
Root crops and fruit trees were inter-planted within clearings that merged with the forest ecosystem, in a way of life that integrated cropping, fishing and hunting with the use of the forest resources. That experience led David to question the conventional idea of a simple split between hunter-gatherers and farmers, and to challenge it in a series of publications.
In the following decade, he continued his explorations of tropical ecosystem management, in the Torres Strait Islands to the north of Australia. The work of David and his colleagues in these islands identified one of the most ancient locations of complex plant management in the world, with a history of several millennia of taro cultivation in drained and managed plots.
Throughout his career, he highlighted the diversity of the world’s ecosystems, and the corresponding diversity and complexity of human management and its history.