PLANTS IN SPACE! On Botanical Colonialism and Selecting “Acceptable” Plants for Space Habitation

Space: The Final Frontier. The final colonial stomping ground for the rich and the entitled and the predominantly white. The phrase “colonisation of space” – and all its associated connotations of conquering and civilising – has long been in use in both science-fiction and real-world references to the future of humanity, as envisioned in the great starry plains of the cosmos. (The first “original” use of the phrase is difficult to ascertain). Undoubtedly, from the so-called “Space Race” of the 1950s to the 1970s, to Elon Musk’s present-day SpaceX program, the modern world appears particularly enamoured with the concept of exploring and, eventually, inhabiting space. Earth’s own moon, and the red expanse of Mars, are especially coveted as the site(s) for this proposed future habitation, as the planets deemed to have atmospheres most resembling Earth’s (from within our own solar system). At least, if not entirely resembling Earth’s, the atmospheres of the moon and Mars are deemed the most “manageable”; the most “conquerable”, and, indeed, the most “colonisable”.

Certainly, living on either moon or planet would require extensive “terraforming” of the landscape to allow the human physiology to survive. Science-fiction novels, movies, and television shows abound with images of domes and underground bunkers; great white spectres amidst otherwise barren landscapes.


Yet beyond merely being able to walk and talk and breath within these habitats, the primary concern centres around our ability to grow food. That is, to grow plants: agricultural foodstuffs such as wheat, maize, vegetables, fruits, herbs. Plants not only for our own (human) consumption but for the potential consumption of livestock as well. Without these, humanity simply will not survive a long-term habitation of space.

Plants – both agricultural, and of the garden variety – have historically been tied to many of the “original” colonization efforts of Earth nations and peoples. It is likely the same will be true of the colonisation of space (Slobodian 2015). What has been deemed the “Anthropocene” has been heavily influenced by the ‘biotic upheaval’ (Mastnak, Elyachar & Boellstorff 2014, 364) of both plants and animals (and fungi and bacteria and…) associated with Earthen colonialism, and its subsequent ideological ‘remaking of relations among humans, plants, and place’ (ibid.). For colonialism was foremost seen as a conquering of land for European empires; and only subsequently the people and animals and plants that happened to reside on that land. As European powers created settler colonies in these lands, they brought with them the plants and animals of their home countries, producing an intensive “biological expansion of Europe” (Crosby quoted in Mastnak, Elyachar & Boellstorff 2014, 367). Plants and animals once “native” to Europe (critiques of the concept of native/alien aside) can now be found across the world. In this way, colonialism and its “conquering” of foreign landscapes through human, botanical, and zoological means, arguably represents ‘the greatest biological revolution’ (Mastnak, Elyachar & Boellstorff 2014, 374) of the modern world. Space proves to be no different. For ‘how could one ever think that, on a remote planet, our environmental care would be any different’ (Calanchi, Farina & Barbanti 2017, 213) to what it has historically been on Earth?

So, let’s take a cue from science-fiction, and envision a future a hundred years from now, or two or three or four. Let’s say humans have set up habitations on Mars; we’ve figured out how to grow food plants, and to grow them well, and the first “pioneering” outposts have now expanded to great cities of hundreds of thousands or even millions of people. Undoubtedly these cities will be built to resemble the cities of Earth (Calanchi, Farina & Barbanti 2017), including its plant life: one can picture parks and tree-lined streets; rooftop gardens and window boxes filled with flowers. Just as Earth colonialism “imported” the plants of settler’s home countries to new lands, so too will the colonisation of space indubitably import Earth plants to the terraformed landscapes of Mars, or the moon, or whichever other planet(s) we decide to “conquer” and “civilise”. Beyond the “practical” agricultural plants mentioned previously, what other plants might be selected for space expansion, and why? How do we decide which plants are “worthy” of inter-planetary expansion, and which should remain on Earth? The botanical and zoological concepts of “native” and “alien” would gain new meaning, as the human experience becomes, literally, extra-terrestrial. Who would make these botanical decisions, and based on what criteria? What would such choices say about our relationship with the chosen plants, and with the unchosen plants, and with the Earth (as a planet) more generally?

These questions and more, coming soon to an Anthropology near you.

Featured Image Source:


Calanchi, A., Farina, A., and Barbanti, R. 2017, ‘An Eco-Critical Cultural Approach to Mars Colonization’, Forum for World Literature Studies, Vol. 9, Issue 2, pp.205-216

Mastnak, T., Elyachor, J., and Boellstorff, T. 2014, ‘Botanical Decolonization: Rethinking Native Plants’, Environment & Planning D: Society & Space, Vol. 32, Issue 2, pp.363-380

Slobodian, R.E. 2015, ‘Selling Space Colonization and Immortality: A Psychosocial, Anthropological Critique of the Rush to Colonize Mars’, Acta Astronautica, Vol. 113, pp.89-104

See Also:

Mary Douglas’s Garden

Ursula Le Guin and the Ethnography of Future Worlds

The Anthropo Scene Part I

The Anthropo Scene Part II

No Homo Bro: Viewing Humans as Primates and the Nature/Culture Divide

Humans are primates. First scandalously suggested – or, at least, first credited as being suggested – by Charles Darwin, this taxonomical classification has since been confirmed by genetic DNA testing. Humans are very much primates, with our genetic similarity to chimpanzees, our closest relatives, as being ‘wellover 99%’ (Waldau 2007, 105; original emphasis removed). Humans are closer to chimps, genetically, than African elephants are to Asian elephants (ibid.).

This fact has caused ideological problems for much of the Western world. The Christian Bible has long advocated man’s dominion over animals – not over other animals, but over animals, period. There is a deep-seated belief in the idea that human are somehow intrinsically separate from, and “above”, the animal world (not to mention the worlds of plants and fungi). This view remains common today, with many Western and Westernized peoples ‘count[ing] themselves a significant cut above animals’ (Sheets-Johnstone 2010, 347); viewing humanity as inherently ‘set apart from the rest of nature’ (Waldau 2007, 107). Carl Linnaeus’ classification of humans as animals, and, later, following Darwin, the taxonomical restructuring of humans as primates, has challenged this deeply held conviction of the Western world’s. And think about it: We classified ourselves as primates. Classification is a human concept, bounded by human-created terms and ideologies. Even the scientific concepts of genetics and DNA are arguably bound to specifically human understandings and framings of these concepts.

So why, then, do so many people still reject the idea that we are “like primates”, or that primates are “like us”? Much of it is tied to the perceived “nature/culture” divide and the socially-held idea that ‘in virtue of culture, humans transcend nature’ (Sheets-Johnstone 2010, 347). Yet modern academic critiques (both positive and negative) of the so-titled “Anthropocene” recognise this divide as ‘an untenable approach’ (Fuentes 2012, 142). Rather, our (human) place in the world and our relationship with “nature”, is ‘an important arena for [ongoing] anthropological analysis’ (Fuentes 2012, 141). This includes, undoubtedly, our ideological relationship with ourselves as primates, as well as our ideological and physical relationships with other non-human primates. The emergence of ethnoprimatology in the anthropological field is evidence of this growing interest in the link(s) between humans and primates. Fuentes writes that an ‘ethnoprimatological [sic] orientation accepts humans as primates and sees value in including other primates as co-participants in shaping social and ecological space’ (Fuentes 2012, 142). Here, ethnoprimatology draws heavily on the concept of the Anthropocene.

Certainly, the insisted separation between humans and primates is revealed to be a distinctly ­Western phenomenon. In many places, humans live in close co-habitation alongside other non-human primates, such as in South- and Southeast Asia, as well as in parts of Africa. Diogo (2018) argues that the negative view of primates is a uniquely European phenomenon, as many other people(s) who interact frequently with primates tend to have a much closer and even reverent relationship with them. He cites Egyptian hieroglyphs depicting Babi, the baboon God, as well as Balinese temples filled with real and sculpted long-tailed monkeys. Waldau (2007), too, references the words of gorilla scientist Dian Fossey’s guide Manuel, who, when encountering free-ranging gorillas in Rwanda, exclaimed ‘Kweli ndugu yanga’, a Swahili phrase meaning ‘Truly my kin’ (Waldau 2007, 104). This reveals intrinsic differences between Western and non-Western views regarding other non-human primates, and our relationship with them.

Of course, this culturally perceived kinship between Swahili peoples and gorillas in no way justifies or legitimises the colonial and very racialized history of Europeans referring to Black African humans as apes. Inspired by Linnaeus’s proposed sub-species (see my companion post here), the early days of physical anthropology were rife with apparently “scientific” comparisons between the physiology of Black African humans and great apes such as gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans. Black Africans (and their kin across the colonies) were routinely referred to as “less evolved” or “less advanced” than their white European counterparts; further down on the evolutionary ladder and more akin to the apes than to “civilised” humans. (Of course, the idea that evolution is a “ladder” at all is a complete fallacy, but that’s an argument for another day). As such, colonial regimes of slavery, segregation, and apartheid could be legitimised through “scientific” terms. Yet once again, we see Diogo’s (2018) claim that this negative view of primates is a distinctly European perspective. Being likened to primates is, in itself, arguably not a “negative” thing – since humans are primates, and there may be much to admire in the lifestyles of primates across the globe. Only in the Christian European view were primates viewed as below humans, and therefore to be like primates was also to be below (other) humans. Modern anthropological and ethnoprimatological analyses critique these understandings, both historical and ongoing, and question, quite literally, what it means “to be human” – and to be primates.

Image Source: Business Insider


Diogo, R 2018, ‘Links Between the Discovery or Primates and Anatomical Comparisons with Humans, the Chain of Being, Our Place in Nature, and Racism’, Journal of Morphology, Vol. 279, Issue 4, pp.472-493

Fuentes, A 2012, ‘Proposal 2: Humans as Niche Constructors, As Primates and With Primates: Synergies for Anthropology in the Anthropocene’, Cambridge Anthropology, Vol. 30, Issue 2, pp.141-146

Sheets-Johnstone, M 2010, ‘The Descent of Man, Human Nature and the Nature/Culture Divide’, Anthropological Theory, Vol. 10, No. 4, pp.343-360

Waldau, P 2007, ‘Kweli Ndugu Yanga – The Religious Horizons of “Humans are Primates”’, Worldviews, Vol. 11, No. 1, pp.103-123

See More:

“Go Back To Where You Came From!” An Anthropological Look at Linnaeus, Taxonomy, and Classification

Things We Wish We Knew In First Year: Ethnocentrism (and Anthropocentrism)

The Anthropo Scene Part I

The Anthropo Scene Part II

“Go Back To Where You Came From!” An Anthropological Look at Linnaeus, Taxonomy, and Classification

If you’ve never studied biology before, or expressed any interest in the worlds of zoology or botany or mycology (the study of fungi; and no I didn’t just Google that three seconds ago…), then you’d be forgiven for not knowing who Carl Linnaeus is (or was). The Swede is largely credited as the “Father of Modern Taxonomy” for his system of classification outlined in his book Systema Naturae (first edition published in 1735).

Of course, the concept of classification had been around long before Linnaeus. DeSalle and Tattersall (2018) argue that ‘[n]aming things is a very deeply embedded component of our cultural and evolutionary development’ (DeSalle & Tattersall 2018, 30). The very basic of language is to name things, and, more than that, naming things in relation to other things. The human naming of things – including “natural” things like plants and animals and fundi – reveals ‘a whole mentality, a view of how the universe is constituted’ (Douglas 1965, 197). Indeed, Mary Douglas’ examination of the rules of Leviticus (Douglas 1966) – dictating what animals are acceptable to eat and why, based on common characteristics – reveals that classification of the natural world was around long, long, before Linnaeus. Classifying the world around us, Douglas argues, protects society from ideological ‘ambiguity and dissonance’ (Douglas 1965, 196). In doing so, humans put the natural world ‘in its place’ (Douglas 1965, 196), and this implies ‘only two conditions, a set of ordered relations and a contravention of that order’ (Douglas 1965, 198). (It was in this context that her arguably most famous assertion that “dirt” is simply ‘matter out of place’ (ibid.) appeared).

Where Linnaeus “revolutionised” the world of taxonomy, was in his ‘great gift… of standardization’ (Naumann 2006, 80). He created the binomial system of nomenclature that is still used in the natural sciences today, where each species is given a two-part name in Latin and/or Greek form: First, their genus (e.g. Homo; capitalised), followed by their individual species name (sapiens). (The name Homo sapiens means “wise man”. He was not the most original in his choices). Linnaeus was the first to (officially, at least) classify human beings as belonging to the same kingdom as animals. (Placing humans in the same order as primates came much later, after Darwin and his own “revolutionizing” work on evolution).

Yet Linnaeus was not content to leave it at that. Systema Naturae was published amidst a boom of colonial expansion, where the concept of “race” was perhaps more prominent than ever before. Subsequently, good ol’ Carl thought it would be fitting to divide Homo sapiens into four racial subspecies – and brace yourself, because by modern standards it truly is awful:

‘(1) American: red, bilious, straight – governed by customs; (2) European: white, sanguine, muscular – governed by customs; (3) Asian: sallow (pale), melancholic, stiff – governed by opinion; and (4) African: black, phlegmatic, stiff – governed by chance’ (cited in Diogo 2018, 283).

These distinctions were made not just on skin colour but on temperament and “humour”, too. Linnaeus also went so far as to include the further subspecies ‘Ferus’ (for, I kid you not, feral children) and ‘Monstrosus’, denoting ‘mythical people with strange morphologies’ (DeSalle & Tattersall 2018). Clearly, he was getting a little carried away. Anthropologically speaking, it reveals an interesting paradigm. In the art versus science debate, Anthropology is largely considered more on the “art” side, whereas taxonomy – based on principles of biology – is considered a science. Yet relegating humans into four racial subspecies – as well as two completely “mythological” subspecies – was clearly not based on any “real” science. We now know, genetically speaking, that there is only one species of human, and that remains Homo sapiens. Sorry Linnaeus.

Yet when these proposed subspecies were published, it was the first time that the notion of “race” had been given a “scientific” basis. Contemporaries of Linnaeus, such as the Dutch physician and anatomist Petrus Camper, used this taxonomic classification of race to further his studies of physical anthropology, including the dubious and now-debunked “science” of craniology/phrenology. As such, the “science” of race loomed large in the colonial mindset of the time, with the “lower human races” of the colonies seen as ‘powerful personifications of wilderness to be fought heroically and conquered by civilised Westerners’ (Corbey quoted in Diogo 2018, 487). Race was given a solid hierarchy, and Anthropology a scientific basis. Certainly, the history of Anthropology is fraught with racist and colonial representations of “primitive”, “less-developed” peoples. Perhaps we should be grateful, then, that the “science” of Anthropology has been discredited, to allow for the more subjectivist interpretations of the “art” of Anthropology to take its place.

Image Source: Time


DeSalle, R. and Tattersall, I. 2018, ‘The Name Game: Linneaus’s 260-Year-Old Classification of Human Individuals and Populations Was the Start of a Hugely Problematic Trend’, Natural History, Vol. 126, Issue 6, pp.30

Diogo, R 2018, ‘Links Between the Discovery or Primates and Anatomical Comparisons with Humans, the Chain of Being, Our Place in Nature, and Racism’, Journal of Morphology, Vol. 279, Issue 4, pp.472-493

Douglas, M 1965, ‘Pollution’, in W.A. Lessa and E.Z. Vogt (Eds.), Reader in Comparative Religion: An Anthropological Approach, Third Edition, Harper & Row Publishers, U.S.A., pp.196-202

Douglas, M 1966, ‘The Abominations of Leviticus’, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts and Pollution and Taboo, Routledge Publishing, United Kingdom, pp.42-58

Numann, P 2006, ‘What’s in the Box? Linnaeus’s Legacy’, Journal of Museum Ethnography, Vol. 18, pp.77-94

See Also:

No Homo Bro: Viewing Humans as Primates and the Nature/Culture Divide

Things We Wish We Knew In First Year: Art/Science Debate

An Anthropology of Scientific Things

A Few Lessons Learned From Anthropology’s Past

Battle of the Ethics: Subsistence Looting

“Some of the 700 Iraqi antiquities…recovered from smugglers along the Syrian-Iraqi borders. Antiquities were looted from Iraq amid the chaos of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.” AFP PHOTO/LOUAI BESHARA

In a previous post, I talk about precarity.

My affair with Anthropology post-dates my commitment to Ancient World Studies – the one subject in high school that really interested me. Yet, for me, the most compelling part of the textbook wasn’t actually about the ancient past itself, but the politics of its afterlife: archaeological ethics, repatriation, conservation, 3D-printing and other technologies used in reproduction. The events of 2015 in Palmyra, Syria, including the grievous iconoclasm – that is, the destruction of monuments for religious or political purposes – and Khaled al-Asaad’s refusal to give up the location of ancient artefacts at the cost of his life, cemented my aspirations in becoming an archaeologist and helping safeguard the relics of the past from similar atrocities.

So, when I was speaking to an Ancient World Studies PhD student earlier this year about my interest in anthropology and archaeological ethics, she suggested taking a free online course called Antiquities Trafficking and Art Crime, developed by Dr. Donna Yates at the University of Glasgow. It’s four weeks long, requires no existing knowledge on the topic, and is truly fascinating. I don’t think it’s entirely without fault, but it has some great (mysterious! unresolved!) case studies and encourages active engagement with your instructors and fellow learners, just like an actual class. Overall, I would highly recommend it as an entry point to learning about the theft, trafficking and forgery of art and antiquities.

What I found really interesting about the course was that it offered a distinctly anthropological perspective on looting that I’d previously never considered. When archaeology students learn about the practice of looting, we’re told one thing: the context of the artefact is lost forever, which means we’ll never know how the artefact relates to the site, period, or assemblage, and, consequently, the complete reconstruction of the archaeological record becomes impossible. As Cannon-Brookes (1994, p. 350) argues, artefacts without context are “cultural orphans…virtually useless for scholarly purposes”. With such unequivocally negative representations of looting, it’s difficult to re-imagine how else this narrative can be told.

But if there’s anything anthropology has taught me, it’s that there’s always another side to the story, a side that’s underrepresented or silenced by a more dominant voice. As Dr. Yates (2019) contends, the idea of looters as grave robbers and tomb raiders is far too simplistic. Many of the countries which harbour prolific black markets “have rich archaeological pasts but are economically poor” (Yates 2019) – an effect largely borne by colonialism and conflict, the historic and current imbalances of which continue to perpetuate chronic poverty, health insecurity, and political corruption and instability. These all contribute to an environment characterised by precarity, which forces those living in poverty to turn to “last resorts” like the illicit antiquities trade. A perspective that can provide more emic insights is evidently required by this multifaceted phenomena, and it’s a conversation that anthropology is positioned to initiate.

The pockmarks of looted sites are often compared to the craters of the moon. Source.

People who engage in illicit excavation for “saleable cultural objects due to extreme poverty” are known as “subsistence looters” (Yates 2012, emphasis added; Hollowell 2006). “Subsistence” here implies that the individual is economically disenfranchised: “they are looting for survival, not profit” (Yates 2012). Indeed, profit is almost inconceivable, as Borodkin reports, with looters receiving less than 1% of the final selling price (1995, p. 378). That’s not the only loss looters face: a destroyed site loses its potential for archaeological tourism. The antiquities black market therefore exploits the looters’ precarity, cyclically robbing them of the possibility to invest in a longer-term economically stable future.

Now, I’m not condoning the looting and trafficking of antiquities, but it no longer seems so straightforward to blame looters for putting their basic needs before the preservation of the archaeological record, nor does it seem fair to view looters as the sole perpetrators of the practice. If anything, as Renfrew and Elia (1993) argue, antiquities collectors are accountable for the demand that looters respond to – a demand that originates in the imperialist practices of 17th- and 18th-century Europe.

The sentiments of the academic, authoritative archaeologist have been the most vocal in the vilification of looting. Whilst this has taught student archaeologists that looting is bad and that we shouldn’t do it, this representation hasn’t helped the humanisation of looters nor the prevention of looting. This issue invites a dialogue on ethics between anthropologists and archaeologists to devise a collaborative solution.

Elia (Renfrew and Elia 1993, p. 17) asserts that “the only way to make a dent in the looting problem is to reduce the demand for antiquities by bringing about a change in social attitude whereby collecting is no longer considered socially acceptable.” I think this is true, but it’s still an archaeologist-centric view. Hardy (2012), on the other hand, has found that community-based practices such as education on the value of heritage and the founding of local museums for cultural tourism have been effective in reducing illicit antiquities trafficking in Mali. I would also imagine long-term solutions to economically support subsistence looters and the concurrent prohibition of museums from acquiring artefacts without context would deter the practice as well (a policy that some, but not all, museums have adopted): an artefact with zero value provides no incentive for looting, but it’s imperative that alternative economic opportunities are made available.

Ultimately, there needs to be a reconsideration of looting as a one-dimensional practice, with anthropology playing an important role in diverting focus toward what causes people to resort to subsistence looting in the first place, rather than fixating on its effects on the archaeological record.


Borodkin, LJ 1995, ‘The Economics of Antiquities Looting and a Proposed Legal Alternative’, Columbia Law Review, vol. 95, no. 2, pp. 377-417.

Cannon-Brookes, P 1994, ‘Antiquities in the market-place: Placing a price on documentation’, Antiquity, vol. 68, no. 295, pp. 349–50.

Hardy, SA 2012, ‘looting, the subsistence digging economy in Mali; and stemming the flow of looted antiquities from Mali to the USA’, weblog post 3 April, WordPress, viewed 14 May 2019, <>

Hollowell, J 2006, ‘Moral arguments on subsistence digging’, in C Scarre & G Scarre (eds), The Ethics of Archaeology: Philosophical Perspectives on Archaeological Practice, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press., pp. 69-94.

Renfrew, C & Elia, R 1993, ‘Collectors are the Real Looters’, Archaeology, vol. 46, no. 3, pp. 16-17.

Yates, D 2012, Subsistence Digging, viewed 14 May 2019, <>.