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An Approach to Aboriginal Cultural Landscapes


Identifying Cultural Landscapes

How are cultural landscapes identified?

A number of countries, including Canada, have recognized the heritage significance of their peoples' relationship to the land. In 1992, after nearly a decade of debate, the World Heritage Committee, the administrative body for the World Heritage Convention, adopted a definition for 'cultural landscapes of outstanding universal value' as the "combined works of nature and of man ... illustrative of the evolution of human society and settlement over time, under the influence of the physical constraints and/or opportunities presented by their natural environment and of successive social, economic and cultural forces, both external and internal".(UNESCO, 1996a)

Its three main categories provide an elementary identification of types that can encompass the wide range of cultural landscapes around the world. These types can be readily found in Canada and worldwide:

  1. Landscapes designed and intentionally created. A Canadian example is Mount Royal Park, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, in Montréal.
  2. Organically evolved landscapes, sometimes known as vernacular landscapes. These can be either relict, in which an evolutionary process came to an end at some time in the past, or continuing. An example of a continuing evolved landscape is the fishing settlement of Grates Cove, Newfoundland, with its harbour, village, and walled landscape.
  3. Associative cultural landscapes. This category includes places characterized by "powerful religious, artistic or cultural associations of the natural element rather than material cultural evidence, which may be insignificant or even absent." An example from the World Heritage List is Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, Australia.

Many landscapes embody characteristics of all three types. In the designed landscape, however, it is anticipated that aesthetic considerations will prevail over other values. By virtue of their organic nature and human use over time, all landscapes may be said to have evolved. The essence of the organically evolved cultural landscape, whether relict or continuing, is that its most significant values lie in the material evidences of its evolution from a cultural initiative to its present form, in association with the natural environment.

Bare broken cliff edges.
Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump World Heritage Site, Alberta.
© Parks Canada / Jazhart Studios / H., 1993.

The emergence of cultural landscapes as an integral part of cultural heritage has coincided with world wide recognition in natural heritage communities that areas long identified as pristine wilderness and celebrated for their ecological values untouched by human activity were often the homelands of indigenous peoples. Management of their landscapes by indigenous peoples has altered the original ecological system, but it has equally contributed to the biological diversity that has long been regarded as a prime value of wilderness (McNeely, 1995). The World Heritage Convention guidelines make this relationship explicit in recognizing a spiritual relation to nature, modern techniques of sustainable development, and traditional practices for maintaining biological diversity.


Last Updated: 2008-10-17 To the top
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