The global geography of human subsistence

Michael C Gavin, Patrick H. Kavanagh, Hannah J. Haynie, Claire Bowern, Carol R. Ember, Russell D Gray, Fiona Jordan, Kathryn R. Kirby, Geoff Kushnick, Bobbi Low, Bruno Vilela, Carlos A. Botero

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

17 Citations (Scopus)
377 Downloads (Pure)


How humans obtain food has dramatically reshaped ecosystems and altered both the trajectory of human history and the characteristics of human societies. Our species’ subsistence varies widely, from predominantly foraging strategies, to plant-based agriculture and animal husbandry. The extent to which environmental, social, and historical factors have driven such variation is currently unclear. Prior attempts to resolve long-standing debates on this topic have been hampered by an over-reliance on narrative arguments, small and geographically-narrow samples, and by contradictory findings. Here we overcome these methodological limitations by applying multi-model inference tools developed in biogeography to a global data set (818 societies). Although some have argued that unique conditions and events determine each society’s particular subsistence strategy, we find strong support for a general global pattern in which a limited set of environmental, social, and historical factors predicts an essential characteristic of all human groups: how we obtain our food.
Original languageEnglish
Article number171897
Number of pages11
JournalRoyal Society Open Science
Issue number9
Early online date26 Sept 2018
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2018


  • agriculture
  • animal husbandry
  • biogeography
  • foraging
  • subsistence
  • cross-cultural


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