When Was the World Our Oyster? We Asked the Anthropologist Investigating Sustainable Oyster Practices Through History

Smithsonian anthropologist Torben Rick studies how different communities sustained oyster populations for centuries, and how that changed in the wake of colonization

6) Eroding Late Holocene Native American oyster midden at low tide in Fishing Bay, Maryland.JPG
An archaeological site on Maryland’s Eastern Shore comprised of massive quantities of oysters harvested over 1,000 years ago that was featured in Torben Rick's recent study. Torben Rick

Researchers at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History recognize that understanding history is crucial to mapping the future. This is why museum anthropologist Torben Rick and his team dug through datasets and piles of oyster shells discarded by Indigenous people in the past.

In a new meta-analysis in the journal Nature Communications, Rick and his colleagues examine historical oyster fisheries along the coasts of North America and Australia to determine just how ancient harvesting practices worked. Among his many co-authors on the project were researchers and members from Indigenous communities such as the Muskogee, Piscataway, and Penobscot tribes.

In August’s installment of Meet a SI-entist, we chat with Rick about how this research into past oyster harvesting informs sustainable practices moving forward, so that we can have our cake – or oysters – and eat it too.
Torben Rick sifting through a large oyster shell midden along Maryland's Potomac River. Courtney Hofman, University of Oklahoma

What drives your interest in studying peoples’ past lifeways and cultures?

I think that archaeology offers an important perspective on people’s past activities and ways of life, as well as a window into their interactions with the environments they lived in. I have always been drawn to studying archaeology because I think it allows us to understand long-term human and environmental history, spanning thousands of years. It also offers perspectives on how we arrived at where we are in the present and can help us prepare for the future.

What questions drive your research?

It’s mostly just one question: “How have people influenced and been influenced by the environments in which they live?”

This question shapes pretty much all my work. It provides the framework for asking a wide range of related questions that help us understand how we created the world around us, drawing on the unique, long-term perspective of archaeology spanning thousands of years or more.

Most people may not think about oysters every day. What is their significance, both for humans and otherwise?

I think oysters are amazing organisms. They're a keystone species that is transformative in marine ecosystems around the world. One of the things they're most famous for, of course, is their water filtration capabilities – they're great at filtering out excess nutrients. A single oyster can filter about 50 gallons of water a day. They also create amazing habitats for small fish, sea grasses, and other organisms too.

But oysters are also central to people throughout history. They've been an important food source for people for thousands of years here in North America. Extending well past 10,000 years ago, people were consuming and eating oysters on both the Pacific coast and not long after on the Atlantic coast, too.

In this study, we were interested in wedding the two realms of importance – recognizing the oysters’ biological significance, but also recognizing their deep historical connections to people. If we want to conserve oysters in the future and get all the biological benefits from having healthy oyster reefs around the world, we must understand the social and cultural contexts in which oysters themselves have evolved over the last several thousand years.

That's what we set out to do by building a team of scholars in the US, Canada, and Australia focused on the archeology of oysters, as well as several Indigenous researchers.

Torben Rick measuring oyster shells excavated from a ~1000 year old site in Maryland. Smithsonian Institution

How did you and your colleagues team up with Indigenous researchers?

In the early 2000s, biologists, archaeologists, historians, and others were really starting to hit home the idea that history mattered – that we couldn't just look at recent records only spanning a couple of years or decades to understand marine ecosystems and organisms. Those records are too shallow because people have been fishing and harvesting those foods for hundreds to thousands of years.

If we really wanted to have accurate baselines to understand restoration or how healthy or unhealthy a particular fishery or ecosystem was, we needed to have longer-term records.

There was a historical ecology study published in 2004 that was looking at oysters. They studied records of fisheries and showed this amazing pattern that when colonial, especially later capitalist commercial fisheries come in, they systematically start over-harvesting oysters in a similar pattern along both the US and Australian coastlines.

Archaeologists all thought this was a compelling argument illustrating the value of historical information for understanding modern fisheries management. But still, we knew the record was limited because there were Indigenous peoples living in those areas, and they had been harvesting oysters for thousands of years. We need to understand that long-term background to provide good context for the more recent historical and modern framework of oyster harvesting.
Torben Rick excavating a shell midden at a coastal archaeological site in California. Todd Braje, San Diego State University

What are the most important takeaways from your recent project?

One takeaway is how important it is to use a historical data set – in this case, a long-term archaeological record that spans a couple thousand years – to understand what the oyster fisheries of the past were like and how they operated. It gives us context and baselines to think about how restoration might work more effectively.

But the most important thing about this study is that conservation biology and environmental justice issues are deeply interrelated. When we look at environmental conservation and management, we need to not just think about the ecosystem, but also recognize the social injustices often tied to that, particularly for Indigenous peoples.

This offers us a way to reengage those community members in their traditional homelands and to allow them a strong voice in what happens with oysters and broader estuarine ecosystems. For example, that could be turning over a portion of an estuary to an Indigenous community to manage as they see fit, or just something as simple as reaching out to discuss what patterns of management they'd like to see and how oyster restoration and management can benefit the Indigenous community. That can be pretty challenging, especially since many Indigenous peoples were forcibly removed from coastal areas, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Meet a SI-entist: The Smithsonian is so much more than its world-renowned exhibits and artifacts. It is a hub of scientific exploration for hundreds of researchers from around the world. Once a month, we’ll introduce you to a Smithsonian Institution scientist (or SI-entist) and the fascinating work they do behind the scenes at the National Museum of Natural History.

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