Combining ethnography, genetics, and spatial sciences to investigate the effects of people-plant relationships over time and space

Project: Research project

Project Details


While its clear that agricultural and industrialized populations have changed plant communities over the last ten thousand years or so since the origins of agriculture, we know very little about how hunting and gathering changes the environment, nor how those changed environments feed back to affect people's social and economic lives. This lack of knowledge about effects of human interaction over very long time scales makes it difficult to understand why our ecosystems look the way they do, and why and how certain social structures and economies evolve. It also hampers our ability to know how our ecosystems will respond to changed conditions in the future, and what we should do when species are endangered. When a plant or animal faces endangerment or extinction, we are often quick to assume its because of habitat loss, or overexploitation; yet sometimes, especially with plants, it may be due to the loss of an important seed disperser. If people have interacted with wild fruit for thousands of years, and affected its distribution by dispersing seed, then the loss of that species may be the result of the loss of that human interaction.

This project explores how contemporary hunter gatherers interact with plants to better understand the long human pre-agricultural history of environmental change. The research team is working with indigenous hunter-gatherers of Australia's Western Desert (Traditional Owners of Martu and Kulyakartu homelands) to ask how foraging, patterns of movement, and the use of fire has shaped the distribution and genetic diversity of wild tomatoes (Solanum diversiflorum). By understanding how hunter-gatherers have shaped plant distributions over thousands of years in the absence of agriculture, we may gain better insights into management strategies to prevent extinction and decline in the present.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

Effective start/end date9/1/198/31/23


  • National Science Foundation: $444,560.00


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