Scientists have long debated how environmental, demographic, institutional, social and historical factors might shape the natural resource management strategies used by different societies and why these strategies change over time. Diverse natural resource management approaches have allowed humans to inhabit every continent on earth, including deserts and rainforests, savannas and tundra, mountains and plains. The degree to which society can use and manage resources sustainably is a primary determinant of current and future well-being. Societies have also collapsed when systems of natural resource management have not matched social and environmental conditions. Studying drivers of present and past natural resource management strategies provides both policy makers and society with critical insights about the constraints and opportunities different contexts offer for more sustainable planning.
GELTS (Geography and Evolution of Land Tenure and Subsistence) is a new NSF-funded project that seeks to address three critical questions: (i) to what degree do different factors determine subsistence strategies and land tenure systems across different regions of the globe?, (ii) do predictable patterns of change exist, or can any form of subsistence or land tenure turn into any other form over time?, and (iii) do subsistence strategies and land tenure systems co-evolve? To date investigating these questions has proven difficult due to the limitations of prior analytical approaches. The senior personnel on this proposal have recently pioneered the use of methods originally developed in biogeography and evolutionary biology to explore the factors that drive the evolution and geographic patterns of cultural diversity. In addition, the research group has developed a database that maps 100+ cultural features onto language family trees for over 1400 societies, and links these to ecological and environmental variables, empowering a whole new line of investigation into the drivers of cultural change and patterns of cultural diversity. The research team is uniquely positioned to use the database and new interdisciplinary methodological approaches to conduct the first, integrated empirical tests of theories from multiple disciplines regarding the geography and evolution of natural resource management systems.