Is the Spatial Distribution of Mankind’s Most Basic Economic Traits Determined by Climate and Soil Alone?

Abstract: Several authors have investigated biogeographic determinants of human history and civilization. The timing of the transition to an agricultural lifestyle, associated with steep population growth and consequent societal change, has been suggested to be affected by the availability of suitable organisms for domestication. These factors were shown to quantitatively explain some of the current global inequalities of economy and political power. Here, we advance this approach one step further by looking at climate and soil as sole determining factors.

Methodology/Principal Findings
As a simplistic ‘null model’, we assume that only climate and soil conditions affect the suitability of four basic landuse types – agriculture, sedentary animal husbandry, nomadic pastoralism and hunting-and-gathering. Using ecological niche modelling (ENM), we derive spatial predictions of the suitability for these four landuse traits and apply these to the Old World and Australia. We explore two aspects of the properties of these predictions, conflict potential and population density. In a calculation of overlap of landuse suitability, we map regions of potential conflict between landuse types. Results are congruent with a number of real, present or historical, regions of conflict between ethnic groups associated with different landuse traditions. Furthermore, we found that our model of agricultural suitability explains a considerable portion of population density variability. We mapped residuals from this correlation, finding geographically highly structured deviations that invite further investigation. We also found that ENM of agricultural suitability correlates with a metric of local wealth generation (Gross Domestic Product, Purchasing Power Parity).

Conclusions/Significance
From simplified assumptions on the links between climate, soil and landuse we are able to provide good predictions on complex features of human geography. The spatial distribution of deviations from ENM predictions identifies those regions requiring further investigation of potential explanations. Our findings and methodological approaches may be of applied interest, e.g., in the context of climate change.

Read full article here.

Citation: Beck J, Sieber A (2010) Is the Spatial Distribution of Mankind’s Most Basic Economic Traits Determined by Climate and Soil Alone? PLoS ONE 5(5): e10416. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0010416

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