Human societies depend on resources provided by agriculture, water availability and earth materials. The extent and nature of that dependence has, however, evolved in concert with the development of cultures. Thus, it is appropriate to pose the question whether the availability of agricultural products and raw materials effects cultural change, and how, in turn, the underlying natural forces of climate and geology influence such change. Efforts to recognize and understand such relationships are inherently complex because of the multiple and variable spatial and temporal levels at which they interact. Hence, our aim is to develop integrated approaches to fathom the connections among the diverse variables and forcing factors that couple human cultural development with natural resources.
The Influence of Climate
Seasonal variations in climate may be affected by short-term events, such as floods and droughts, which are immediate in their impact. However, the timescales of climate change include longer-term perturbations that, in most instances, can far surpass a human lifespan. In addition, trends in climate can be progressive rather than episodic, ultimately leading to profound changes that alter temperatures and precipitation patterns, with significant consequences for the societies rooted in the affected region.
Human agricultural practices depend on seasonal and annual temperatures and precipitation patterns conducive to support and sustain specific crops and husbandry, which couples them to climate. Hence, it can be expected that climate change may be beneficial or detrimental to extant agricultural practices thereby enriching the society, or causing it to seek alternative food or water supplies, or harvest different crops. The combination of data portraying cultural change with evidence for climate change in a defined spatial and temporal context offers the potential to recognize human response from human initiation. For example, there is a critical need to discern and discriminate the influences of climate versus human activity on the distribution and diversity of vegetation, for example, identifying the more likely cause for deforestation or desertification.
The Influence of Geology
The geology of a region governs the availability of critical raw materials, such as vital ore minerals for metallurgy (e.g. Cu, Sn, Pb), building stone (construction and ornamentation), clay for pottery and bricks, sand for glassmaking, and gold and gemstones for decorative arts. The use of all such materials is inherently coupled to emergent technologies and limited by their accessibility, quantity and quality. Here, knowledge of the geology in a specific region can define the practical extent of a mineral or rock resource, and facilitate construction of models that can predict its viability, especially when combined with evidence of both recovery and usage from archaeological evidence. Analysis of the history of usage of scarce resources may also permit determination of the comparative importance of recycling specific materials in ancient societies, and the impetus to identify new sources of materials and new technologies, including mining and engineering. In addition to their separate relationships to human society, there are also links between climate and geology because of their coupled role in determining soil fertility, and in governing processes involved in the weathering of bedrock that aids the exposure, transport, and deposition of mineral and rock resources.
The Influence of Human Settlement
The specific conditions that favor human settlements are linked intrinsically to resource availability. A place of settlement is fixed in space and time to utilize the benefits from local agricultural productivity, and/or the accessibility of or proximity to important raw materials. Hence, climate and geology are factors that underlie the process of urbanization because the resources necessary to sustain these human societies continue to increase with population growth. Such societies face major challenges when finite resources become depleted locally, which can only be solved by identification of new resources or engagement in trade, which may represent events of cultural significance.
Integration of Influences
A critical challenge in understanding the natural factors that lead to cultural change is the absence of mechanisms that facilitate the comparison and correlation of discrete communities. Consequently, recognition of causal relationships between societal and cultural change, climate change, and geology have largely arisen from serendipity rather than a systematic examination and modeling of the connections among them. An approach that can place these data sets within a common spatial and temporal framework offers the opportunity to examine in a purposeful manner how, for example, societal change including urbanization was functionally linked to resources, or affected by climate change. We want to permit a targeted search for answers to questions that ultimately will enable researchers in archaeology, geology, and climatology to understand the influential forces that shape cultural evolution, and the nature of societal responses to crises in resource availability.