An anthropology beyond the “anthropos”: health and environment

An anthropology beyond the “anthropos”: health and environment – Example from Aboriginal Australia
Health and environment: new perspectives

There is a wide range of disciplines that operates in the field of environmental health, and it mainly includes the scientific ones, since they try to practically highlight different strategies in order to find a healthy balance between the environment and the human wellbeing and needs. This is an important step when it comes to health, since it is a way of leaving the individual human body with the consideration of the external environment as a factor that can hugely affect us.

“One Health”, an approach jointly developed by FAO, OIE, and WHO has the main aim of advancing practices for better public health able to consider everything present in the environment, included the environment itself, and in this way getting out of the individual body perspective. Its representative symbol is a circle that depicts “Healthy People” – “Healthy Environments” – “Healthy Animals”.
A quote that we can easily relate to this perspective comes from Yassi (et al.) that write:

We are part of the web of life and whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. 1(Yassi, A., Kjellström, T., de Kok, T., and Guidotti, T. L. 2001: 7)

This perspective briefly introduced is relatively recent and, together with other studies and research that are carried out around these topics, it brings new important views. If we look at the dominant institutional approaches that are the basement of our thought and of the cultural world where we grew up in, when it comes to health, the individual body is set at the center, while the environment – interestingly this word comes from the French “environ”, which means “surrounding” – is indeed considered as something external, that surrounds.

Therefore, beyond the infectious diseases spread from animals to humans, the environmental crisis and the big climatic events that we are going through, it is interesting to look deeper into these perspectives and to fully understand the role that the environment plays, in general, in affecting our short-term and long-term wellbeing – both physical and mental.


One health

Anthropology and environment

Whereas the biologist claims to study organic nature “as it really is”, the anthropologist studies the diverse ways in which the constituents of the natural world figure in the imagined, or so-called “cognised” .worlds of cultural subjects 2(Ingold, T. 2000: 14)

Both Ingold (Ingold, T. 2000) and Descola (Descola, P. 2013) wonder whether it would make sense to talk not only about “one nature” – “many cultures”, but also about “many natures”. This means that the different ways of living and of thinking the environment, tend inevitably to build it and to influence its constant evolution.

This is basically what environmental anthropology deals with, since it researches about how different cultures live in their environment, how they interact with it, how they perceive it, and how they represent it.

It’s not always emphasized the contribution that humanities and social sciences – in this case I specifically refer to anthropology – can give to the development of topics like health and environment. The usual dichotomy nature – culture, that invests also the division between social and natural sciences, it’s something to which we are used from the institutional models that for centuries have been the guide for the “Western”3I’m aware that the use of the word “Western” can be quite generalizing: I’m drawing from the literature that I read, and even Descola himself apologized for his too frequent use of this term. I acknowledge that it’s utilized with the aim of referring to the philosophical and scientific trends risen in Europe, that have characterized fundamental years of the philosophical and scientific thought formation that is at the base of our education under many aspects. thought, but it seems to slowly deteriorate. In this regard, what Tim Ingold thinks is that the role of anthropology would be that of reducing the gap between humanities and natural sciences (Ingold, T. 2000: 1).

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We could talk then about a “super-anthropology”, an anthropology that goes beyond itself and its discourse on “humans”; as Descola and Pálsson write:

Anthropology […] it must rethink its domains and its tools to embrace not only the world of anthropos, but also that part of the world with which humans interact. 4(Descola, P., and Pállson, G. ed 1996: 14)

Furthermore, in order to facilitate some changes that could bring us closer to more sustainable lifestyles, it’s important to change the way of thinking and the mindsets of people, so to understand that, as Descola wrote, there are different ways of living the world, and ours is only one of those, and it’s probably not the most sustainable when it comes to the environment we are immerged in (Descola, P. 2005).

There can be alternative ways of relating to the external world, and consequently also to our health. The way in which we look at the environment also determines the way in which we perceive ourselves and our bodies in relation to it. Indeed, if we keep seeing the environment as simply an external entity separated from us, we’ll tend to see our health as something independent from it and concerning only our single body, and so, to rephrase the Yassi’s (et al.) quote, we’ll think that «whatever we do to the web, we don’t do to ourselves».


Hint on a practical example: health and environment in the Aboriginal communities

The term “Aborigines” or “Aboriginal”5The term “Aborigines” is usually referred only to the native inhabitants of Australia and Tasmania, with the exclusion of the Torres Strait Islanders (people from the Torres Strait Islands). To include also these last ones, in order to talk more generally of all the Australian native inhabitants, we can use the term “Indigenous”. Considering my scarce knowledge of the Torres Strait Islands’ history, I will mainly refer to the term “Aborigines”. might result too generic, since it can imply the risk of associating to a unique group all the different communities in Australia, historically characterized by deep linguistic and cultural differences. Nonetheless, something that I found it can be considered quite common, is the relation entrained with the environment and the ties that this has with health.

Shearman and Sauer – Thompson in their exploration of the health values in different cultures, make an interesting and unusual comparison: indeed they write that the loss of land for an Aborigine is comparable to a paraplegia due to an incident for a “Western” person (Shearman, D., and Sauer – Thompson, G. 1997: 18). When the Aborigines had been deprived of their land, a land physically and culturally fundamental for them, this meant for them a further deprivation of the control on their own lives, on their ways of eating, living the land, and even in their ways of healing.

With regard to health, these communities found themselves constrained into an “ethnocentric approach”, for which it was implied that the Aborigines «have, or should have, the same health values as white Australians» (Moodie, P. M. 1973: viii).

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The “Closing the Gap” policies, whose main objective was that of achieving «the health equality for Aborigines and Torres Strait Islander people by 2030», often resulted to be ineffective, due to the scarce consideration of the different health values characterizing the communities.

Furthermore, in this case the land is a context where the colonial experience left its traces and has still an impact, so that the elements that today are part of the territory are hardly to be read outside of that context. An example of this, and that shows the lack of cultural sensitivity of the colonizers, can be found in the dwellings built for the Aborigines: in the Western perspective, the ideas of individual space and private property are privileged, but in the Aboriginal one the sense of community prevails, so it’s been quite common to have small crowded dwellings, with various negative consequences also on the health side.

Aborigines may reject or neglet conventional European houses offered to them, simply because these dwellings are not appropriate to their wants and needs. Many Aborigines do not value the isolation and privacy offered by the standard European house; they value human relationships, open living areas and space in which to be able to communicate freely with others and honour their obligations to offer accomdation to family and friends.6(Reid, J., and Trompf, P. 1991: xvii)

What these communities went through and suffered with the segregation policies first, and then with the assimilation ones, had a big effect on their wellbeing status, and in the description of this sufference there is a sense of the loss of the land, and with this, of all the traditions and the cultural activities connected with it.


Map partly showing the Aboriginal cultural diversity. For a better whole detailed view, visit this website: https://aiatsis.gov.au/explore/articles/aiatsis-map-indigenous-australia


It’s interesting then to try to understand how the relationship between health and environment is conceptualized in local perspectives: we can see that in this specific case health is not only related to the individual body, but it’s inclusive of the entire community’s wellbeing and of what lays outside the land.
The “land” englobes both the place meant as the natural environment, and also as the place where the individuals can share their values and beliefs, meaning the entire system of cultural activities and social relations that characterize a community and that form its history and culture.

So, the interruption of the continuity between the community and its territory, means to deteriorate the ensemble of these relations, representing then a threat to the individual’s and community’s wellbeing itself.


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Bibliography and sitography:

  • Australian Indigenous HealthInfoNet – https://healthinfonet.ecu.edu.au/learn/health-system/closing-the-gap/history-of-closing-the-gap/
  • BMC – https://www.biomedcentral.com/collections/OneHealth
  • Descola, P. 2013, The Ecology of Others, Prickly Paradigm Press.
  • Descola, P. 2005, Par-delà nature et culture, Éditions Gallimard.
  • Descola, P. and Pálsson, G. 1996, Nature and Society. Anthropological perspectives, Routledge.
  • Ingold, T. 2000, The Perception of the Environment. Essays on livelihood, dwelling and skill, Routledge.
  • Latour, B. (translated by Porter, C.) 2004, Politics of Nature. How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy, Harvard University Press.
  • Moodie, P. M. 1973, Aboriginal Health, Australian National University Press.
  • Reid, J., and Trompf, P. 1991, The Health of Aboriginal Australia, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Group.
  • Shearman, D., and Sauer – Thompson, G. 1997, Green or Gone. Health, ecology, plagues, greed and our future, Wakefield Press.
  • WHO – https://www.who.int/news-room/q-a-detail/one-health