ASU, Washington anthropologists to examine sustainability in deep past

Editor's Note: Arizona State University baseball will take on the University of Washington in three games May 18-20 in Tempe.  Read more about ASU's collaborations with Pac-12 schools.

Scientists across the world have come to believe that addressing the issues of future global sustainability requires looking into the deep past, not just the previous hundred years or so.

With this in mind, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded millions of dollars in grants to eminent anthropologists to identify conditions that allowed people to develop sustainable relationships with the environment over a thousand years or so.

Margaret Nelson, distinguished sustainability scientist in ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability and professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change, currently holds three NSF grants totaling more than $2 million to look at social and ecological resilience. She is principal investigator on a grant to discover configurations of diversity in ecological landscapes and social organizations that affect systems’ ability to cope with significant environmental or social changes.

Five archaeological cases from the southwestern United States and northern Mexico offer long-term “experiments” that allow researchers to use dynamic modeling to determine how diversity in the social and ecological realms affected these societies’ abilities to thrive.

Nelson also is on another grant as a co-investigator, along with Ben Fitzhugh, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Washington; Tim Kohler, Regents' Professor of anthropology at Washington State University; and Thomas McGovern, professor of anthropology at Hunter College. Principal investigator is Sophia Perdikaris, archaeologist at the City University of New York.

At ASU Nelson, who is vice dean of Barrett the Honors College, leads an interdisciplinary research team addressing a range of social-ecological issues concerning resilience and sustainability for prehistoric small-scale farmers in the U.S. Southwest (600-1500 CE). The team analyzes lessons learned from this research for contemporary issues of resilience and sustainability.

She has conducted research in the Mimbres region of southwest New Mexico for over 30 years, collaborating for the past 20 years with Professor Michelle Hegmon. Nelson also includes undergraduate and graduate students in her archaeological research.

During the past decade, international funding agencies have supported research efforts focused on the long-term interaction between humans and their environments. These research studies, which track the dynamic relationships of societies and environments over 1,000 years or more, have been carried out in the southwestern United States, coastal Alaska, North Pacific and North Atlantic oceanic islands, Scottish Highlands and islands, Central America and Caribbean.

The resulting pool of data, spanning tropical to arctic latitudes, will be incorporated into a network known as the Global Long-term Human Ecodynamics Research Coordination Network through the NSF grants.

The work to develop the network will provide insight into global climate issues. Once created, the network will serve as a universal resource for future collaborative efforts.

Nelson also is principal investigator for a grant to examine climate change using archaeological data from the southwestern United States and the north Atlantic islands of Iceland, Greenland and Faroes.