Ecological Concepts in Anthropological Human Ecology:


Illustrations from Mormon Settlement in Northeastern Arizona.



William S. Abruzzi

in Scott Wright, Thomas Deitz, Richard Borden, Gerald Young and Gregory Guagnano, eds.,

Human Ecology: Crossing Boundaries. Society for Human Ecology.

 College Park, MD, pp. 255-271.





            Considerable disagreement exists within anthropology regarding the application of ecological concepts and principles to the study of human social behavior. Although many anthropologists have applied ecological concepts and principles in their study of human populations, (cf. Barth 1956; Rappaport 1968; Gall and Saxe 1977; Leone 1979; Winterhalder and Smith 1981; Abruzzi 1982, 1987, 1989, 1993) other anthropologists have rejected such applications as largely naive and inappropriate uses of biological concepts (cf. Vayda and McCay 1975; Bennett 1976; Lees and Bates 1984; Smith 1984). Such disagreement even exists among anthropologists who have adopted an explicit ecological orientation (see Moran 1984). Ecological anthropologists who view themselves as human ecologists generally see ecology as providing a testable framework for examining both human and nonhuman social behavior within a unified theoretical perspective. Those who view themselves as cultural ecologists, on the other hand, are more likely to reject a strict application of ecological principles to the study of the human condition on the grounds that culture acts as a mediating force which renders human adaptation to the environment analytically distinct from that of all other species.

            For cultural ecologists, ecology serves more as an orientation for the study of human environmental relations than as an operational set of theoretical principles which can be used to explain specific human social behaviors. This is clearly illustrated by the history of the use of such concepts as niche and ecosystem in the anthropological literature. For the most part, these concepts have been extended to human populations completely separated from the theoretical systems from which they derive their utility and meaning. They have, instead, mostly served as metaphors organizing a largely functionalist view of human-environmental relations among preliterate non-Western peoples (cf. Barth 1956; Rappaport 1968; Leone 1979).

            Working from the assumption that human communities comprise a subset of ecological communities and that ecological principles apply equally to all living communities, regardless of their specific biological composition, I have shown elsewhere that historical developments among early Mormon settlements in the Little Colorado River Basin of northeastern Arizona conform to expectations derived from general ecological theory (cf. Abruzzi 1987, 1989, 1993). In the presentation which follows, I intend to illustrate the differences between cultural and human ecological approaches in anthropology by contrasting my analysis of these early Mormon settlements with those of previous researchers who have investigated the same settlements. I conclude from this comparison that ecological theory provides a more precise, testable, synthetic and parsimonious explanation of developments surrounding the settlement process than all other previous accounts and that it places this specific historical event within a substantially broader theoretical framework. Consequently, I believe that it renders all previous explanations scientifically superfluous and demonstrates the advantage of using ecological theory to explain human social behavior.



Little Colorado River Basin




The Mormon Church directed the founding of some two dozen agricultural settlements in the remote Little Colorado River Basin of northeastern Arizona during the closing decades of the nineteenth century (see Figure 1; Peterson 1973; Leone 1979; Abruzzi 1993). Despite a considerable investment of manpower, a high degree of cooperation among local colonists, and the repeated and judicious donation of material support by Church headquarters in Salt Lake City, not all of the Little Colorado colonies succeeded to the same degree. While some towns grew to several hundred inhabitants by 1900, others contained barely one hundred persons by that date and were frequently on the verge of failing. Still others failed, joining the roster of Western ghost towns within a few years of their founding.

            The principal factors affecting community development among these early towns were the specific characteristics of the physical environment to which early farmers in the region had to adapt. The Little Colorado River Basin encompasses about 5,000 square miles and increases in elevation from about 5,000 feet along the lower valley of the Little Colorado River to the north to about 8,500 feet near the Mogollon Rim, a steep escarpment defining the southern boundary of the region.




Woodruff Butte

            Annual precipitation ranges from 9 inches at lower elevations to the north to almost 25 inches in the southern highlands. Most of the basin, however, receives less than 15 inches of precipitation per year. In addition, little, if any, rain occurs during the dry months of April through June. Irrigation has, therefore, been a prerequisite to successful farming in the region (Abruzzi 1985). However, because surface water in this arid region flows largely in direct response to precipitation, streamflow fluctuates sharply, and most streambeds are dry during April-June when 45% of annual irrigation requirements must be applied (see Bureau of Reclamation 1947:72). To add to their difficulties, early pioneers also had to contend regularly with early frosts, high temperatures, droughts, flooding, hailstorms, insects and high winds. Finally, two devastating droughts ravaged the basin for nine years between 1892 and 1905, killing thousands of livestock and causing widespread crop failure. Such pervasive local environmental variation frequently resulted in individual settlements losing crops to several causes (including drought and flooding) during a single agricultural season (cf. Abruzzi 1987:319).

            For purposes of understanding community development in the region, the basin may be conveniently divided into three subregions: (1) the lower valley of the Little Colorado River; (2) the southern highlands; and (3) the intermediate territory situated between these northern and southern extremes. The least developed of all the communities studied were those, such as Showlow and Alpine, which were located in the southern highlands. While precipitation was greatest in this subregion, the growing season at these higher elevations was the shortest and least reliable. The mean annual growing season at Alpine was a mere 89 days, considerably less than the 120 days needed for many crops. Also, while soils are deeper at higher elevations due to the greater density of vegetation, they tend to be susceptible to flooding and, in places, slightly acidic. Significantly, communities in the southern highlands contained: (1) the smallest populations, (2) the least number and variety of occupations and businesses by the close of the century, and (3) the least developed local church organization. In terms of these three indices of community development, the southern highlands settlements were the least developed Mormon communities in the region.

             Settlements along the lower valley of the Little Colorado River, such as St. Joseph and Woodruff, enjoyed more than ample growing seasons, over 170 days on average. However, they were forced to depend on highly unstable, poor-quality surface water sources which made irrigation there highly unreliable. In addition, they suffered significantly more dam failures than any towns, making farming in this subregion more difficult and costly than anywhere else in the region. St. Joseph and Woodruff sustained 13 and 10 dam failures respectively between 1876 and 1900, compared to only 3 dam failures at Snowflake and Taylor, 2 at St. Johns, 1 at Showlow, and none at Alpine and Eagar (Abruzzi 1993:123). Due to the lack of suitable reservoir sites, these settlements could build only diversion dams throughout the nineteenth century. As a result, St. Joseph and Woodruff remained vulnerable to the intense variability that characterized the Little Colorado River at lower elevations. Lower valley settlements also had to contend with poor quality soils that are high in sodium and low in both phosphorus and organic matter. Furthermore, due to their high clay composition, these soils possess low permeability and are highly susceptible to flooding during the irrigation season. As a result of these environmental limitations, lower valley settlements were only marginally more successful than were those in the southern highlands.

            The most developed Mormon settlements in the region were Snowflake, Taylor, St. Johns and Eagar, all of which were located in river valleys at intermediate elevations. All of these towns enjoyed adequate growing seasons (over 120 days per year) and were located near permanent streams where relatively stable surface water sources could be exploited. Each of these towns was also located in relatively large valleys containing fertile and well-drained soils. Moreover, two of these towns, Snowflake and St. Johns, were not only the most developed Mormon communities in the basin in terms of the size of their populations, the complexity of their business and occupational structure and the extent of their local church organization; they also became the locus of stake organizations that coordinated the religious and temporal affairs of all the other towns in the region.

Resource Redistribution

Successful colonization of the Little Colorado River basin was due in large part to the development of a system of resource redistribution that mitigated the negative consequences of local environmental variability (see Leone 1979; Abruzzi 1989, 1993:148-155). The region's pronounced spatial diversity provided early settlers with a unique opportunity to overcome local environmental limitations. Due largely to local differences in topography and precipitation, the basin contains numerous, widely separated and structurally distinct local habitats which were often differentially affected by the same regional environmental influences and which, therefore, offered distinct potentials for agricultural productivity. Consequently, a clear adaptive advantage existed for these early settlements to integrate the productivities of their diverse habitats into a single system of resource redistribution.  A multi-habitat exploitative strategy enabled each town to diversify its resource base and, thus, increase its ability to cope with local environmental variability.

             The Little Colorado Mormon settlements developed two distinct multi‑habitat resource redistribution systems during the nineteenth century. They were not equally successful, however. The first consisted of several productive enterprises, including a sawmill, a dairy, a tannery and a grist mill, jointly operated by the initial settlements established in the lower valley of the Little Colorado River. These conjoint enterprises, were generally located at higher elevations to the south and provided the lower valley settlements with important resources (most notably lumber, cheese, butter, meat and certain vegetables) which could not be produced near the towns themselves. They, thus, supplemented the highly variable farming productivity achieved within the lower Little Colorado River Valley.



Little Colorado River Basin Topography

             However, the conjoint enterprises were largely summer operations at higher elevations to the south and, because of their distance from the lower valley, required a more or less permanent resident population. They, therefore, competed directly with farming in the lower valley for labor. As population size declined and the number of settlements in the lower valley decreased during the early 1880's due to the strain of recurring dam failures, the conjoint enterprises could no longer be maintained and were eventually abandoned.

             A second system of multi-habitat resource redistribution evolved subsequent to the demise of the conjoint enterprises that operated through the redistribution of local tithing resources. Tithing, most of which was paid in kind to local church leaders in towns throughout the basin, was forwarded to regional Church-run warehouses (see Leone 1979:43-85; Abruzzi 1993:148-155) where it was eventually redistributed to individuals and communities in need. Through tithing redistribution, individuals (and even whole towns) in need were able to gain access to surplus resources produced elsewhere in the basin. Through the redistribution of tithing resources, early Mormon settlers successfully exploited the region's spatial diversity to offset its local temporal variability. They effectively turned a dormant surplus into a flow of resources that was largely responsible for the success of the colonization effort. St. Joseph and Woodruff would clearly never have survived their many dam failures had it not been for the availability of tithing resources. They would very likely have become extinct, like every other Mormon town established in the lower valley.





            Several researchers have already examined Mormon settlement in the Little Colorado River Basin. Charles Peterson (1973) has written an engaging narrative history of the settlement process. Mark Leone (1979) has investigated the Little Colorado Mormon settlements in order to illustrate the transformation of Mormonism as a theological system from the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries. And Kent Lightfoot (1980) has researched sociopolitical developments among the Little Colorado Mormon settlements in order to develop a model for understanding socio-cultural development among prehistoric Pueblo societies in the Southwest.

              Directly or indirectly, each of these researchers has offered an explanation for successful Mormon colonization of the region. Peterson, a historian, gives primary consideration to the superiority of cooperative Mormon values in overcoming obstacles imposed by a demanding environment.1 Leone, an anthropologist, attributes successful colonization to the synergistic effect that dam failures and tithing redistribution had on regulating human environmental relations. He argues that recurring dam failures advanced the settlement process by initiating a ritual cycle that resulted in tithing redistribution and an increased religious community among the many settlers scattered throughout the region. Lightfoot, also an anthropologist, likewise attributes successful Mormon colonization of the basin to tithing redistribution. More specifically, he argues that Mormon success was due to the introduction of a two-tiered church hierarchy of stakes and wards2 that allowed a more effective redistribution of tithing resources among the numerous, widely-scattered farming communities throughout the region.





The Little Colorado River bed

is dry most of the year.


            A reference such as Peterson's to unique values and institutions cannot provide a viable explanation of successful Mormon colonization in the Little Colorado River Basin or elsewhere because: (1) such explanations ignore the material context which selects for the origin and persistence of distinct values within a group; (2) a reference to unique values yields a distinct explanation for each distinct social group studied and, thus, runs counter to the scientific goal of developing increasingly general and more parsimonious explanations; (3) such explanations consider only proximate rather than ultimate causes for the success of the colonization effort; and (4) are incapable explain the considerable developmental variation that existed among these culturally homogeneous Mormon settlements. A reference to cooperative Mormon values also cannot account for the greater success of tithing redistribution as a mechanism of environmental regulation compared to the conjoint enterprises, especially since the former was based on institutional arrangements which facilitated individual financial gain while the latter was based on communal values and institutions (see Abruzzi 1989).

            The central question that needs to be considered, then, is why Mormon colonization of the Little Colorado River Basin succeeded where others had failed, and does the explanation for their success derive from general ecological considerations. If an ecological explanation for the success of Mormon settlement in the region is to be accepted, it must account not only for the general success of this particular Mormon colonization effort, but also for specific empirical developments associated with the settlement process. At the very least, an acceptable explanation must account for: (1) local differences in the degree of community development achieved by individual Mormon towns in the basin; (2) the role that resource redistribution played in successful colonization; and (3) the differential success of Mormon efforts to establish a viable multi-habitat resource redistribution system. Moreover, these separate developments must be consistently and parsimoniously explained as predictable consequences of general theoretical principles (see Hempel 1965; Nagel 1979).

            Both Leone and Lightfoot have proposed cultural ecological explanations for the success of Mormon settlement in the Little Colorado River Basin (Leone 1979; Lightfoot 1980), and both have emphasized the role that tithing redistribution played in circumventing local environmental variability. However, despite their explicit ecological orientation and their recognition of the importance of tithing redistribution, both have failed to provide a satisfactory explanation of the settlement process.

            Leone's explanation is flawed on several grounds. Adopting the analytical framework of cultural ecology, Leone offers what amounts to a functional explanation of human environmental relations modeled on Rappaport's (1968) analysis of highland New Guinea warfare. Following Rappaport's lead, Leone claims that tithing redistribution operated as part of an elaborate ritual cycle which functioned to maintain an equilibrium between the regional Mormon population and its environmental resources.

            While Leone's claim regarding the cleansing role of dam failures may have some validity (and even that is arguable), his thesis that dam washouts and tithing redistribution combined to enhance Mormon unity and successful colonization is highly problematic. It suffers from all the methodological problems inherent in functional explanations, ecological or otherwise. To begin with, what needs to be shown‑‑that the regional Mormon population was, in fact, in equilibrium with regional environmental resources‑‑is assumed rather than demonstrated. Aside from the problems of determining the existence of equilibrium in ecological systems (see Engelberg and Boyarsky 1979), it is highly unlikely that stability would found in the relation between an immigrant population and its environmental resources during a period of active colonization.

            Leone's thesis is also completely untestable. The purported integrative advantage gained from successive dam failures is non-quantifiable and, therefore, cannot be measured against the substantial material losses that such calamities imposed. Leone's thesis regarding the integrative effect of dam failures is also directly contradicted by the fact that: (1) St. Joseph and Woodruff, the towns which suffered the greatest number of dam failures, were among the least developed communities in the region, and (2) the lower valley, the sub-region in which St. Joseph and Woodruff are located, is the subregion which contained the largest number of extinct settlements.

            Leone's analysis also occurs within a historical vacuum and is divorced from the precise spatio-temporal context of Mormon settlement. Individual historical events which significantly affected the settlement process, such as specific floods, dam failures or droughts, are either ignored or discussed abstractly within a largely ahistorical account. As a result, his analysis rests mostly upon generalizations about the entire region and the total Mormon population as if both were largely undifferentiated entities. Also, because Leone focuses on Mormonism and Mormon culture, rather than on specific local populations, almost no attention is paid to sub-regional environmental variation and its relation to local differences in demography, agricultural productivity and other indices of community development. Consequently, he is unable to even address let alone explain the substantial differences in community development that accompanied the settlement process.

            Leone also describes tithing redistribution as if it were an unchanging system which existed throughout the settlement period, rather than as a system of resource redistribution which emerged subsequent to the failure of the conjoint enterprises and which itself evolved through time. He is, therefore, unable to address or explain the differential success of these two systems either. Kent Lightfoot (1980) also attributes success of Mormon colonization of the Little Colorado River Basin to the development of an effective system of resource redistribution. Unlike Leone, however, Lightfoot acknowledges the two distinct systems of resource redistribution and attributes the greater success of tithing redistribution to the development of a two‑tiered Church hierarchy of wards and stakes which, he claims, facilitated a more effective redistribution of surplus resources among the numerous widely‑scattered farming settlements in the region. In contrast to Leone, Lightfoot also recognizes that the success of tithing redistribution resulted from local physical environmental differences and provides at least a partial account of what those differences were and how environmental diversity, together with tithing redistribution, contributed to successful Mormon colonization of the region.

             Lightfoot also fails to provide a systematic explanation for the success and evolution of tithing redistribution, however. By contrasting the hierarchical church organization associated with tithing redistribution with the single‑level organization of the early lower valley settlements, Lightfoot fails to consider:  (1) the development and importance of the conjoint enterprises in the redistribution of resources among lower valley settlements, and (2) the fact that the lower valley settlements were organized into the Little Colorado Stake and, therefore, also contained a two-tiered administrative structure. Lightfoot also makes no attempt to account for the success of tithing redistribution in term of the theoretical implications of this system's organization in relation to local and regional conditions. In the absence of general theory, he provides only a partial empirical explanation for the success of Mormon colonization of the basin.

             Despite the existence of previous anthropological/ecological research, we are left without a satisfactory explanation of Mormon settlement in the Little Colorado River Basin. The remainder of this paper will present a simple set of general principles derived from ecological theory to account for the success of Mormon colonization in the region and for the specific empirical developments which attended the settlement process.





             Ecological communities evolve to the extent that the individual organisms within them convert available potential energy into productivity, biomass (population) and, ultimately, functional diversity, and the evolution of ecological communities constitutes an incessant developmental process resulting in the most diverse community organization that can be supported by available resources (see Margalef 1968; E. Odum 1971; Whittaker 1975). A central concern of ecological analysis at the community level has been to identify those factors which advance or inhibit the developmental process. Although the specific factors which influence community development are numerous and differ locally in their relative importance and particular effect (see E. Odum 1971:43-53, 106-136), certain general considerations prevail. Briefly stated, the most complex ecological communities evolve in environments that are both productive and stable (see Sanders 1968; MacArthur 1972; Whittaker 1975). Although environmental productivity is a principle condition underlying the evolution of complex ecological communities, research has clearly shown that the developmental effect of high productivity can be compromised or even negated by environmental instability, which may increase maintenance costs and decrease net community productivity (see Sanders 1968; E. Odum 1971:43‑53). Consequently, the most complex ecological communities occur in ecosystems characterized by high productivity, predictability, and low variability (Slobodkin and Sanders 1969). Research also indicates that community diversity may enhance community stability due to the ability of a complex community organization to offset the destabilizing impact of local environ­mental fluctuations (see MacArthur 1955; MacArthur and Connell 1966; Margalef 1968; Odum 1969).3 However, research also indicates that community stability and persistence can only be enhanced where community diversity provides sufficient redundancy in community resource flows to assure the availability of critical resources during periods of environmental instability (MacArthur 1955; May 1973; Leigh 1976). Where sufficient redundancy exists, environmental fluctuations can be offset by the existence of a complex network of overlapping energy/resource flows. However, where insufficient redundancy exists, environmental perturbations are likely to ramify throughout the community and reduce community stability, even among communities containing a high degree of diversity (see May 1973; Holling 1973; Leigh 1976).

            This limited set of ecological considerations explains both the success of Mormon settlement in the Little Colorado River Basin and the specific empirical developments attending the settlement process. It also accounts for these various developments within a consistent, parsimonious and testable theoretical framework (see Abruzzi 1993).

Resource Redistribution and Successful Mormon Colonization

          As already indicated, the Little Colorado River Basin presented early Mormon settlers with a diverse and highly variable environment. Consequently, while local environmental variability imposed severe limitations on agricultural productivity and community stability, the region's diversity offered the potential for circumventing local environmental limitations. Mormon colonization of the region was successful because only Mormon pioneers developed an effective system of resource redistribution that effectively offset the negative consequences impact of local environmental instability.

The Differential Success of Mormon Resource Redistribution

          The system of multi-habitat exploitation based on the conjoint enterprises established by the lower valley settlements was not ecologically viable because it was not compatible with local and regional environmental conditions. The small populations of these towns suffered intense drains on their limited resources due largely to the variability of surface water flow in the Little Colorado River. Chronic labor shortages relative to the demand for labor imposed by recurring dam failures severely limited the ability of lower valley settlements to invest sufficient resources to effectively exploit distant habitats. Thus, despite its cooperative orientation, communal organization and explicit ethno-ecological basis, the system of conjoint enterprises failed as a mechanism of environmental regulation.

             Significantly, tithing redistribution succeeded as a mechanism of environmental regulation for the very reasons the conjoint enterprises failed, despite the fact that the critical institutions which underlay this latter system were established primarily for non-ecological purposes (see Abruzzi 1989). By broadening both the organizational and environmental scope of the exchange network and by incorporating within this network a sufficiently large aggregate population permanently occupied within numerous, widely‑dispersed habitats, the system of tithing redistribution was suitably structured to circumvent local environmental variation in a way that the system of conjoint enterprises could not. Because it included every Little Colorado Mormon settlement and, therefore, integrated resource flows from every exploited habitat, the system of tithing redistribution was able to provide substantial resources (labor, food and supplies) at those specific times and places where resources were critically needed to offset the destabilizing impact of environmental variation. In addition, tithing redistribution integrated the productivity and labor of over 2,000 persons in two dozen function­ally independent settlements situated in widely dispersed habitats throughout the river basin. As a system of environmen­tal regula­tion, tithing redistribution stood in sharp contrast to the conjoint enterprises which integrated the material resources of only a few hundred persons inhabiting three or four neighboring settlements located in similar, highly unstable primary habitats. The effectiveness of tithing redistribution was also enhanced by the integration of local settlements into a regional, centrally administered religious organization and by the affilia­tion of local institutions with external parent organizations. While the former increased the responsive­ness and reliability of local tithing redistribution, the latter provided access to resources whose availability was independent of regional environ­mental conditions.
















The Little Colorado River begins as a clear mountain stream in the White Mountains (left).  However, it accumulates increasing amounts of sediment as it flows through lower elevations with their bare soils, so that by the time it flows over the Grand Falls (above) it contains over 25 percent sediment load.

             Significantly, the differential success of Mormon attempts at multi‑habi­tat exploitation in the Little Colorado River basin conforms to expectations derived from general ecological theory. Ecological redundancy was clearly absent in the system of conjoint enterprises established by the early Mormon settlements in the lower valley of the Little Colorado River. Although these enterprises exploited resources away from the lower valley, availability of the labor needed to operate them was directly linked to conditions affecting agriculture along the Little Colorado. Consequently, the negative impact that environmental instability had upon irrigated farming in the lower valley ramified to the conjoint enterprises and precipitated their demise. Consequently, the system of conjoint enterprises failed as a mechanism of environ­mental regulation despite its cooperative orientation, communal organization and explicit ethno-ecological basis.

             In contrast, the system of tithing redistribution integrated settlements throughout the entire river basin by uniting the productivity and labor of separate populations concentrated in the intensive and independent exploitation of diverse local habitats. Productive shortfalls at one location were generally compensated for by surplus productivity elsewhere in the region. Thus, independent resource flows originating in numerous, distinct habitats provided the redundancy needed to circumvent local habitat variability. Linking local tithing redistribution to encompassing Church institutions merely enhanced the redundancy already present in this system of resource redistribution. Thus, tithing redistri­bution succeeded as a mechanism of environmental regulation despite the fact that some of its primary institutions were established for manifestly non‑ecological purposes and that it was based on individual profit.4

             Thus, general ecological theory regarding the role which ecological redundancy plays in the ability of diverse ecological systems to enhance community stability explains: (1) the success of Mormon colonization; (2) the role that resource redistribution played in that success and, most significantly, (3) the differen­tial success of early Mormon settlements in developing an effective multi-habitat resource-flow system. General ecological theory also accounts for differences in community development achieved among individual Mormon settlements in the region.

Local Differences in Community Development

          Located above 6,000 feet, settlements in the southern highlands suffered from the shortest and most variable growing seasons in the entire basin. The number of consecutive frost‑free days experienced throughout the southern highlands was generally too short for the cultivation of some crops and too variable for a reliable harvest of others. Highland settlements were also located in relatively narrow valleys with limited potential for the expansion of agriculture. In addition, the more highly situated settlements in this subregion had to contend with soils that were both poorly drained and slightly acidic. Consequently, community productivity and population size among settlements in the southern highlands remained among the smallest and most variable in the basin. Thus, low environmental productivity and stability resulted in a low and highly variable aggregate community productivity among southern highland communi­ties. As predicted by general ecological theory, settlements in the southern highlands were the least functionally diverse Mormon towns in the basin (see Table 1).

             Because settlements in the lower valley benefited from growing seasons averaging over 170 days and because they farmed larger areas, they had the potential for supporting larger populations and achieving substantially greater community produc­tivity and functional diversity than settlements in the southern highlands. However, lower valley settlements experienced high summer tempera­tures, dust storms and a recurring spring dry season, all of which reduced agricultural productivity and increased the frequency of crop failures. Lower valley settlements also irrigated the least fertile soils with the poorest quality surface water in the basin. Furthermore, both soil and water quality deteriorated steadily throughout the nineteenth century as a result of overgrazing and the prior appropriation of surface water at higher elevations to the south (see Abruzzi 1993: Chapter 7). Due to the absence of suitable reservoir sites, lower valley settlements also experienced greater surface water variability than any other settlements in the region. They also suffered the greatest incidence of dam failures. This not only reduced annual agricultural productivity; it also increased the cost of farming in this sub-region. With the highest incidence of dam failures occurring among some of the smallest populations, lower valley settlements easily bore the highest per capita maintenance costs in the region. Indeed, so great were the maintenance costs relative to productivity among lower valley settlements, that only two of the six Mormon towns established in this sub-region survived.

             Lower valley settlements were, thus, situated in highly unstable habitats which possessed only moderate productivity, but which imposed what were clearly the highest community maintenance costs in the region. Moderate environmental productivity in the face of low environmental stability and high maintenance costs resulted in only limited aggregate and net community productivity. As predicted by ecological theory, lower valley settlements contained among the smallest and most variable populations in the region and achieved a functional diversity not significantly greater than that found among settlements in the southern high­lands. The negative impact that environmental instability had on community diversity among lower valley settlements relative to those in the southern highlands duplicates the effect that environmental instability had on tropical versus temperate ecological communities in Sanders' (1968) classic study of community diversity in benthic ecosystems.

             In contrast to settlements in the lower valley and those at higher elevations, all four intermediate settlements enjoyed reliable average growing seasons in excess of 120 days and were located adjacent to perennial streams and in proximity to suitable reservoir sites. Intermediate settlements were also situated in relatively large valleys containing fertile, well‑drained and relatively good‑quality soils, and were able to irrigate these soils with largely silt‑free water. Their access to dependable water resources and adequate growing seasons made intermediate settlements less vulnerable to the effects of climatic variability than those towns located along the lower valley of the Little Colorado River or situated in the southern highlands.

             From the perspective of general ecology, large valleys, good soils and abundant, superior quality surface water yielded high environmental productivity for intermediate settlements. At the same time, reliable growing seasons combined with stable surface water sources produced high environmental stability with regard to critical resources for agriculture. High environmental productivi­ty and stability combined to produce the highest and least variable community productivities of any settlements in the region. Furthermore, because intermediate settlements did not suffer the frequency of dam failures experienced in the lower valley, and because they contained the largest populations in the basin with which to undertake dam reconstruction, they also sustained the lowest per capita maintenance costs of any settlements in the region. They, therefore, yielded the highest net productivity and were able to support the largest and most stable populations in the basin. As predicted by ecological theory, intermediate settlements evolved a greater functional diversity than any other Mormon settlements in the region. Significantly, a Rank‑Order Correlation of .884 (p<.01) was achieved when individual Mormon settlements were compared for composite indices of population size, productivi­ty and stability on the one hand and functional diversity on the other (see Abruzzi 1987:331).


Table 1

Rank-Order of Mormon Settlements

(1887 - 1905)







and Stability







Intermediate Settlements


     St. Johns



Lower Valley Settlements

     St. Joseph



Mountain Settlements




























rs = .884, p<.01


Source: Abruzzi (1993:196).

aBecause they are located within three miles of each other, Snowflake and Taylor were treated

  as a single community in the calculations performed (see Abruzzi 1993:194-195).






            This paper has addressed criticisms of the explicit application of general ecological concepts and principles in anthropology. It argues that ecological concepts have frequently been applied inappropriately, with general ecology serving more as a metaphor for describing human environmental relations than as a body of theory leading to specific and testable predictions regarding the organization an evolution of human communities. The paper suggests that human communities are a subset of general ecological systems and are, therefore, subject to the same theoretical principles and analyzable by means of the same conceptual framework. The paper illustrates these points by contrasting the explicit application of general ecological concepts and principles to explain Mormon settlement in northeastern Arizona with previous explanations which were expressly but incompletely ecological. The paper shows that while previous "ecological" explanations, in fact, account for very few empirical developments associated with Mormon settlement of the Little Colorado River Basin, general ecological theory explains:  (1) the success of Mormon colonization of this arid and variable region; (2) the role that effective resource redistribution among individual settlements played in the success of Mormon colonization of the basin; (3) the differential success of Mormon efforts to establish an effective multi-habitat, resource redistribution system; and (4) the variable success of individual Mormon settlements. All of these develop­ments were left unexplained by previous researchers employing ecology merely as a frame of reference rather than as a set of interrelated concepts and principles leading to testable predic­tions. They are also left unexplained by analyses which emphasize the social consequences of cooperative Mormon values. The paper, therefore, concludes that ecological concepts and principles must be applied more strictly before their applicability to the human condition can be adequately evaluated, and suggests that their utility will likely be validated.





1.  A reference to distinct values has been the most pervasive and enduring explanation used by historians and social scientists alike to explain the general success of Mormon settlement throughout the American West (cf. McClintock 1921; Stegner 1942; O'Dea 1957; Arrington 1958; Meinig 1965).

2.  Stakes and wards are administrative units in the Mormon Church. Roughly, they are comparable to diocese and parishes in the Roman Catholic Church. Throughout the nineteenth century, each town in the Little Colorado River Basin contained one ward. Eventually, two stakes were established, one centered at Snowflake and the other at St. Johns.

3.  Considerable controversy surrounds the relationship between diversity and stability in ecological systems (cf. MacArthur 1955; Brookhaven National Laboratory 1969; May 1973; Cody and Diamond 1976; Leigh 1976). For a discussion of this controversy and its relation to human ecology see Abruzzi 1982:18, 29‑31; 1987).

4In addition, despite its manifest cooperative orientation, tithing redistribu­tion actually functioned through supporting institutions which made participation in the system individually profitable (see Abruzzi 1989, 1993:154).






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