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Cultural Adaptation: Human Adaptability in Tropical Rainforests

Updated on May 17, 2012

Cultural Adaptation

Do you want to know how indigenous people adapt in rainforests? Or how life is sustained in rainforest? Well this lens is constructed especially for you. Yet still if you are looking for educational materials related to this topic then I'd rather say you have arrived at the right place. Read on and find out more on how the Meramera people, in particular the people at Ulamona, West New Britain Province, Papua New Guinea live harmoniously within their environment.

Cultural Adaptation: Human Adaptability in Tropical Rainforests


A tropical rainforest is an area of land that is covered with different species of plants. These woodland areas are found between the Tropic of Cancer and Capricorn where there is rain all year around. These woodland areas are found mainly in Central America, the Amazon Basin of South America, New Guinea, New Britain, Southeast Asia and parts of Africa, especially the east coast.

Tropical rainforests are similar all around the world. The common plants are the dominant broad-leaved evergreen trees, which are of different sizes and height. They formed the five different layers common in tropical rainforests. The topmost layer is the emergent followed by canopy, understory trees, the shrub layer and finally the field layer. Each of these layers has its own micro-climate due to the thickness of the forest and the accessibility of sunlight by each layer. For instance, the lower layers receive less sunlight than the upper layers and therefore the air is more damped there.

The tropical rainforest is a sustainable biome in the earth's biosphere. It provides a habitat, food and most other resources for mankind, animals and plant species. It is one of the many rich ecosystems that we have in the world. Moreover, it is sustainable because it has the ability to regenerate after its destruction. The most important thing about tropical rainforest is the fact that it has a great variety of plant species that sustain life on earth. The different plant species sustain life by taking in carbon dioxide and giving away the oxygen we breathe.

Despite the fact that tropical rainforests are rich in natural resources it is also a biome that has its extremes. Nevertheless, man had come up with some forms of adaptation that allowed him to live and reproduce. Man adapts genetically, physiologically, behaviourally, and culturally to this physical environment. These different forms of adaptation were not merely a response to the environmental changes. Basically, these forms of adaptation were related to how human beings organised themselves and interact with each other together with their physical environment. This is obvious in the significant roles the forest played in the life of the people.

Therefore, this paper will focus on man as an inhabitant of the tropical rain forest. The discussion will base on culture as a form of human adaptability in tropical rainforests. In the process the discussion will more or less base on the Meramera case study. Hence, the discussion will proceed under the following sub-headings: The Tropical Rainforest - An Ecosystem, Culture and Cultural Adaptation in Tropical Rainforests.

The Tropical Rainforest - An Ecosystem

The tropical rainforest is the largest biome that housed a great variety of plant and animal species. A biome is an ecosystem that has a dominant type of vegetation and animal life (CD-ROM, Microsoft Encarta, 2004). An ecosystem is a community of interdependent organisms together with their environment, which they inhabit and with which they interact. These terms are related in a way that they are concerned with plant and animal lives within a particular sphere of the earth's biosphere.

In the tropical rainforest every living organisms depend on one and other. This is obvious in the food web in the topical rainforest. Plants are the first link in the food chain because they produce their own food. This is done through the process of photosynthesis. Herbivores then consume plants' food and the chain is connected as carnivores eat herbivores.

A change in one of the stages affects the rest of the food chain. If a catastrophic decline happen to the population of one prey organism then its predators are most likely to be affected. Nevertheless, predators do not feed on only one prey organism but on several others as well. This is seen as a means of adaptation in the ecology. Ehrlich, Ehrlich and Holdren (1972:156) describe it as '…a form of insurance against disruptions'.

Man is one of the prominent last links in the food chain. Changes have occurred to the food chain and the ecosystem as a whole that man has to come up with some forms of adaptation in tropical rainforests. In this case the form of adaptation is more or less cultural than the other forms of adaptation. In that human beings used culture as a form of adaptation in the tropical rainforests. This allows human beings to continue to live and reproduce.

What is Culture?

Culture is one of the most researched concepts in the field of anthropology. Today it is a sub-field in the discipline of anthropology and is known as 'cultural anthropology'. It was stated that cultural anthropology became a subject of its own when man invented the first elements of culture many hundreds of thousands of years ago (Opler in Freilich, 1972:95). Since then man and culture became the subjects of study in the field of cultural anthropology. This is because man and culture cannot be separated from one and other, as both are interrelated and interdependent. According to Opler in Freilich (1972:95), he stated that they have coexisted ever since.

Culture has been given so many definitions by many different social scientists. In Papua New Guinea Secondary Schools, the commonly held definition is 'a way of life or doing things'. According to E. B. Tylor "Culture…is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of the society" (White in Freilich, 1972:97). The former definition is short and is a summary of Tylor's definition. A way of life includes all that Tylor has stated above. Hence, the definition is short and precise in the sense that it includes every aspects of human life. Moreover, it includes tangible and non-tangible aspects.

Culture existed in our minds but not as a single entity. It existed as a collection of coherent ideas (White in Freilich, 1972:109). This produces cultural behaviours which are very much observable to human eyes. Let us see Tylor's example in White's article (in Freilich, 1972:109) to illustrate this point; "…there is present in an Indian's mind the idea of a dance. This is the trait of culture. This idea influences his body…that he behaves in a certain way". In other words, the ideas in his mind influenced him that he made them became a culture and simultaneously became observable. It became observable when he actually danced.

Thus, culture existed in our minds and is interpreted to suit the social context and experiences it is occurring in. It is, therefore, a learned and shared experience by members of a society. Boma (2005:HHIS 321 Course Handout) defined it as behaviours that people learnt and shared that include rules, skills and attitudes that people acquire as members of the society. Hence, this definition implied that culture is not genetically but socially inherited. Language is the general means by which culture is defined. In other words, we use language to make meanings out of learned and shared experiences or behaviours (Boma, 2005:HHIS 321 Course Handout).

In every society culture is inherited as the process of socialisation is taking place. Socialisation is the process that paves the way for the process of enculturation. Enculturation is the process of learning the culture. As children are growing up they learn the ways of doing things within the society from adults. Not all cultures are imposed upon the child but are also learnt by observation. The family unit is the most influential actor in imparting culture. The family unit is the social context where every human being first begins to learn his or her culture. Thus, we could say the process of socialisation and enculturation go hand in hand.

Cultural Adaptation in Tropical Rainforests

The study of human-environment interactions is a two-way thing. This is so because man has always been a part of the ecology. Wherever man live he always influences his environment. This is done through man's activities in the environment. On the other hand, the environment influences man and thus, causing man to respond to these influences. In other words, the environmental conditions affect man and so man's responses are merely ways of adapting to these environmental conditions. As stated above, the responses are genetical, physiological, behavioural and cultural responses. The whole ideas can be summed up as 'environmental determinism'. This concept refers to environmental conditions or factors that play a role in affecting and influencing man and thus, causing man to respond through the four types of responses above. They are merely ways of adapting to whatever the environmental conditions may be. In this paper the focus is on culture as a response to the conditions in the tropical rainforests.

Environmental determinism was developed as far back to the ancient Greeks (CD-ROM, Microsoft Encarta, 2004). It was promoted until the 20th century. In the 19th century man gained more new information about the study of man-environment interactions and came up with new ideas. 'Possibilism' is one of these new ideas. This concept is associated with the idea that the environment limits culture. In that sense the environment give man time and space to make a choice from the possibilities that are provided. Man's choices are determined by historical and cultural factors. Boma (2005:HHIS 321 Course Handout) provided a practical example about these ideas with regard to Netherlands whereby land was reclaimed from the sea. This is because most of its land areas are below the sea level. Land was reclaimed from the sea and turned into agricultural land. This is a form of cultural adaptation within their immediate physical environment.

Human beings have inhabited almost all parts of the earth ever since the prehistoric period. Human beings have inhabited the most harsh and extreme environments to those with conditions that are considered as suitable for human settlements. The tropical rainforest is no exception to this fact. It has been a habitat to the different species of plants, animals and so as human beings.

In the present age the lifestyle of people who live in areas of tropical rainforests are very much different to the type before the discovery of agriculture. People were more or less hunter-gatherers. Today we know very well that they had changed from hunter-gatherer lifestyle to subsistence gardeners. In the past they survived by hunting and collecting from the abundant resources that the forests provided. Hence, mobility became a daily occurrence in their lifestyle. Nevertheless, these movements were limited by the fact that the forest had everything necessary for their survival.

The pattern of settlement is also determined by tropical rainforests. Speaking from an indigenous point of view, the forest has had a great influence on the settlement pattern. This is because of the abundant supply of resources in the forest and the availability of agricultural land. Population is another contributing factor in determining the settlement pattern.

In the past the Meramera people of West New Britain Province live in scattered villages. People lived in simple dwellings and in clan groups. This is because of the vast areas of land, scarce population, the abundant resources in the area and the fear of each other. However, as population increased, the pattern changed. Three to four clans live together and form a village. In the past human population was limited by wars that were waged between the different clans in the area. These wars were known as gata. It happened as a custom in which rival clans would come to the battlefield and challenge each other. On the battlefield the fighters would pick their opponents from the rival clan. They would then challenge each other by using spears and a coconut shell as a shield. This seemed unbelievable but in fact these fights were associated with sorcery.

Life in a typical Meramera village is more or less evolves in between communalism and individualism. It is on certain occasions only that people work communally. In the past that may not be the case because the population was not that large. Hence, it was necessary for them to help one and other. This has changed because of the size of the population and the availability of land. Even though the population increased the land is still sparsely populated. This means that more land is available for agriculture. In that agriculture is the chief economic activity in the Meramera villages.

Gardening is a very important aspect of their lifestyle. It is done on a daily basis. In the mornings one would see men going off to their gardens after a light breakfast of cassava. The women, on the other hand, would do the same after completing the household chores. It is only the old people and the children who stay back in the village and wait for the rest of the villagers to come back from their gardens. In the afternoons it is a usual sight to see the village folk coming back from the garden after a hard day's work in their gardens. The gardens produce good harvests all year around because of the fertile volcanic soil from Mt. Ulawun, which is still active toady. Mt. Ulawun is situated to the south of the coastline where the settlement areas are located. It adds to the mountain ranges of New Britain, which is called the Nakanai Ranges.

Gardening is done on the coastal lowland and is moving towards the inland area that is still covered by virgin forests. The type of gardening is shifting cultivation. The staple food crops are cassava and taro. These two food crops grow very well in these areas because of the volcanic soil and the fertile forestland. Taro is cultivated only in virgin forest clearings. This is done only on occasions of big events such as initiations of the first-born children, marriage, and on the events of feastings. The latter refers to such customs as repaying someone for what he or she may have done in the past. Meanwhile this is a form of preserving the forest areas so that it may sustain them into the future. The forest acts as a reserve bank whereby the local people would come to for cultural materials such as traditional bilas (dresses) and so as a hunting ground.

Taro cultivation is determined by the season. The north coast of West New Britain Province usually has a lot of rain in the months from December to April. During this period the Meramera people clear the forest and prepare the soil for planting. Then as the dry season approaches taro plantings are done. In contrast, cassava is cultivated all year around. The soil type in the area is very much suitable to the plant that it becomes a staple food in the area. They also grow other food crops such as banana and Chinese taro. Generally, cultivation of food crops is determined by the season, soil condition and social activities in the village. Whenever there is a poor harvest of these food crops people live on sago that are produced from sago palms in the swampy areas on the coast.

Meanwhile the food crops are cultivated through shifting cultivation. After the taro is harvested, the garden is left to regenerate into secondary forest. The fallow period is usually up to two to three years. This is to allow the soil to regain its fertility. After the fallow period is over that same area is cleared once again and cassava is planted. Cassava is the most staple food because it takes about less than four months to be ready for harvest. However, the preparation of the soil is something that an agriculturalist would say is extraordinary if one witnesses the process. After the trees are cut and burnt down all waste vegetable materials are removed from the ground. This is a similar method that was applied by the Orokaivas in the Northern Division of British New Guinea. According to Williams (1928:133), that '… may mean that there is less weeding to do while the crops are growing…'

Hunting in the Meramera area is not an opportunist culture. Quite often planning and preparation are the prerequisites to any hunting trip. A hunter has to be prepared for the tough journey in the mountainous forest areas. This is where the hunters go to hunt for games. In the night he feeds his dogs and prepare his hunting gears. The hunting gears consist of a spear (su una buse) and a knife to cut his way through the bush. Dogs are very important when it comes to hunting. In most cases the number of dogs must be more than one. If a hunter does not have enough he can always borrow from another hunter. The reward for the use of another hunter's dogs is usually given in kind. In most cases the hunter is usually given part of the catch.

The most frequent game is wild bush pig. Quite often the aim of every hunting trip is to hunt for wild bush pigs. Sometimes the hunter will not catch any pig but he may be lucky to catch a substitute like a cassowary or a wallaby. The latter animals are also some of the animals that hunters do hunt for but not frequently like pigs.

A Hunting trap is an aid that hunters use to catch pigs. The most common type of trap is the one that is set on the ground where pigs made their tracks. In the local vernacular it is known as 'mahi'. It is constructed by using a trigger, a lever and a rope with a knot tied on one end. The trigger is usually placed across the pig track. The lever is planted at about two metres away from the trigger. The rope is then tied on the edge of the lever. It is then connected to the trigger by bending the edge of the lever with the rope and attached to the trigger. It will be activated if the pig steps on the trigger. Sometimes a hunter would find other animals as wallaby, cassowary or bandicoots upon checking the trap.

In the past fishing is done by using traditional fishing aids. Some of these traditional fishing aids are vuho (fishing net), spears, matagu (poison rope) and fishing lines and hooks made from bush ropes and animal bones. Today these fishing aids are no longer in use. Nevertheless, the style of fishing is quite similar to the past practices. When there is a low tide in the sea fishermen would go out on shallow waters and do the fishing. Today it is much more convenient because fishermen uses butterfly lamps. In the past they use burning touches made from coconut leaves. They use the poison rope when they come across schools of fish. However, today this fishing aid is discouraged because of the damage it does to the sea ecology.

Hunting, fishing and gardening are the factors that determined the eligibility of young men to marry. One would remain a bachelor the rest of his life if one is a lazy person and does not know how to hunt and fish. The same applies to young women.

One other culture that the Meramera people adopted to foster their continuity in such a biome is the practice of curing diseases. The forest areas are also very good breeding grounds for diseases. One of the popular diseases is malaria. The thickness of the forest provides a good habitat to mosquitoes, which are carriers of the disease. Nevertheless, malaria is not the only disease in such areas. There are other diseases that pose as a threat to human survival in forest areas. Despite this the local people had come up with some ways of curing them. The forest provides them with all the resources they needed to cure the diseases. In other words, they came up with traditional medicines to cure these diseases.


The tropical rainforest is a sustainable biome in the earth's biosphere. It provides a habitat and food to plant and animal species. It is also a habitat to man ever since he appeared on earth. Human life in tropical rain forests is not that easy as it seemed to be. Tropical rain forests have some of the harsh and extreme conditions that forced man to make adjustments in order to continue to live in that environment. We have looked at these forms of adaptation as cultural adaptations.

Culture refers to the way people in a particular environment live and interacts with each other and their physical environment. This includes the social, economic, political and spiritual life of the people. Moreover, it also includes the material and non-material aspects of their life.

In this paper, we have looked at the Meramera case study. The discussion covered only some of their cultures that enabled them to adapt in their environment. In that we have looked at the social and economical lifestyle of the people. This lifestyle comes in the form of settlement pattern, gardening, fishing, hunting and traditional medicine. These are some of the cultures that they use as a form of adaptation in their environment.


Anon (2004) "Human Ecology", in CD-ROM, Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia Plus, United States of America.

Boma. K. (2005) "Cultural Adaptation", HHIS321 Course Handout, U.O.G.

Boma. K. (2005) "Cultural Landscape / Ecology", HHIS321 Course Handout, U.O.G.

Ehrlich. R. P, Ehrlich. H. A. & Holdren. J. P. (1972) Human Ecology, W.H. Freeman and Company, United States of America.

Opler. E. M. (1972) "The Human Being and Culture", in Morris Freilich (ed), The Meaning of Culture, Xerox College Publishing, Lexngton, pp88-96

White. L. A. (1972) "The Concept of Culture", in Morris Freilich (ed), The Meaning of Culture, Xerox College Publishing, Lexngton, pp97-122.

Williams. F. E. (1928) Orokaiva Magic, Oxford University Press, London.


The intro image is taken from the World Book CD-ROM, 2005.

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      Willa 2 years ago

      I am doing a project about how people adapted in the Amazon rainforest and this was really helpful, thanks!

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