Very little of what we see around us in Britain today can be classed as 'native'. When the sea cut off the island from the rest of the continent (c. 8,000 years ago) the flora, fauna and human population were very different. Over millennia, Britain's ecology and culture have been transformed. Change has been the only constant, with population movements being responsible for the island's unique bio-cultural heritage.
Ancient migrations of people, ideas and animals are widely celebrated and incorporated into expressions of British cultural identity. However, the more recent the migrations, the more negative the attitudes towards them. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in discussions about 'native' versus 'alien' status, be it in relation to animals, people, or religious ideologies. In general, native is perceived as positive and 'natural', whereas the term 'alien' is attached negatively to cultural and environmental problems. These perceptions often translate into societal attitudes and policy making, in particular that relating to biodiversity, even though they may result from "shifting baselines".
"Shifting baseline" refers to the phenomenon whereby people consider the socio-environmental circumstances of their childhood to be 'natural' and morally absolute. In the absence of deeper historical and archaeological understanding, these nostalgic ideals are adopted blindly (and often erroneously) as the foundation for decision-making both at a personal level and more broadly in science and policy. This project sets out to investigate the role of shifting baselines and their impact on the value-judgements placed on 'native' and 'alien' animals, people and ideologies through the high-profile and publicly engaging example of Easter.
Easter is the most important event in the Christian calendar, yet astonishingly little is known about when it first appeared in Britain, the origins of its component customs - e.g. the gifting of eggs purportedly delivered by the Easter 'bunny' - or how they coalesced to form current practices. Easter and its associated animals - namely the brown hare, rabbit and chicken - are all 'alien' to Britain. However, they are viewed positively because they arrived in the long-forgotten past. Easter is therefore an excellent example to highlight the impact of shifting baselines and challenge negative attitudes to cultural and biological 'aliens'.
Our team will achieve this by integrating evidence from anthropology, (zoo)archaeology, (art) history, evolutionary biology, law, historical linguistics, natural history and religious studies to answer the following questions:
- Where and when did modern Easter traditions first begin, when did they arrive in Britain, and how closely correlated are the arrival of religious traditions and the brown hare?
- What were the bio-cultural, political and religious mechanisms by which:
- The derivatives of Latin Pascha and Germanic forms of Easter spread and interacted with each other in Christian communities in early medieval Europe?
- The rabbit diffused across Europe and replaced the hare as the main Easter animal in later British traditions?
- Can ancient interactions between the native mountain hare, the introduced brown hare and the rabbit be reconstructed to provide a deeper-time perspective on the impact of 'alien species'?
- How can the filling of knowledge gaps about human-animal bio-cultural history transform 'native' versus 'alien' discourse at both a societal level and within wildlife management policy?
Addressing these questions will not only close knowledge gaps about Britain's most important religious (but also secular) festival but also those pertaining to iconic animal species. Together these datasets will be workshopped to contextualize and challenge modern cultural attitudes to society, religious beliefs and the natural world. This will be achieved through an exciting and innovative outreach and engagement programme.
Easter represents a familiar festival, a significant knowledge gap in bio-cultural heritage and a case-study for highlighting the phenomenon of shifting baselines. The entire team will contribute to the project's impact programme, helping to run public debates and high-profile media events. We have identified three main groups, other than academics, with whom we wish to engage: 1) general public, 2) school children, 3) those involved with wildlife management, conservation and policy-making
- General public. Easter is a subject that generates media interest on an annual basis. We will utilise this power of the festival to engage members of the public in the creation and dissemination of our research but also to encourage societal-level reflection on cultural norms. Collaboration with the Mammal Society provides our project with a citizen science element, with the public supplying information about lagomorph iconography via the existing Mammal Atlas programme/platform. Media coverage (particularly through AHRC/BBC Next Generation Thinker, Alasdair Cochrane) will be tied to our agenda-setting annual public discussion. In order to address shifting baselines at a societal level it is necessary challenge core cultural values. This will be achieved through our research-led nostalgic novel, The Easter Hunt, written by established author Adrian Bott and linked to our exhibitions at Fishbourne Roman Palace and the Horniman Museum, as well as outreach events at literary festivals. This book will be promoted to families but also to our second group.
- School children. Given that shifting baselines result from the beliefs that are set in childhood/adolescence, it is vital that we engage with young people. Our project fits well with the English history curriculum, particularly Key Stage 2 (impact of the Romans, Anglo-Saxons and Christian conversion) and Key Stage 3/4 (medieval Church and state). Furthermore, as an accessible but multi-faceted festival that weaves together religious and cultural beliefs with animal biogeography (past and present) Easter is an excellent theme to teach across the curriculum at a secondary school level. As such it will be possible to recreate the interdisciplinary nature of our project in microcosm through the school curriculum. We will utilise our existing connections with schools (e.g. artist Ben Frimet, City of London Academy) and educators at a minimum of two UK museums, to generate resources that will complement existing activities and can be rolled out to other educational institutions.
- Wildlife management and conservation policy makers. 'Invasive animals' or 'alien fauna' are often cited as one of the most significant threats to biodiversity, with considerable costs to the British economy. Because of this, there are many NGOs examining their impact; yet government documents reveal how little is actually known about introduced animals and highlight an absence of humanities-led discussion (see reference 1 below). Given the growing recognition that shifting baselines are a problem in wildlife management and that environmental approaches must take account of cultural and temporal entanglements, this project will serve as a powerful example of best practice. By examining the bio-cultural dynamics of European lagomorphs we will provide the evidence to underpin modern policy about the impact and management of these species. Importantly, our results will help to address issues of lagomorph management and conservation since data concerning population viability will be generated as by-products of the broader DNA and zooarchaeological study.