Long-term Sustainability through Place-Based, Small-Scale Economies: Approaches from Historical Ecology

This project examines the importance of place-based, small-scale economies. Archaeological, ethnohistorical, and paleoenvironmental studies test our hypothesis that community sustainability has been directly linked to community scale and food diversity.


This project examines the importance of place-based, small-scale and diversified economies, particularly the importance of small-scale food production, circulation and consumption, for the long-term sustainability of human societies. The following working hypothesis begins our research: Highly specialized subsistence (food production) strategies can support a larger community for a short period, but a decrease in subsistence and food diversity makes the production system and its associated community more vulnerable in the long-run. Archaeological, historical and paleoenvironmental studies are used to test this hypothesis or examine the long-term impacts of the loss of subsistence/food diversity in relation to other environmental and cultural factors. To link these studies with the current discussion of the scale and methods of alternative food systems, ethnographic and ecological studies of contemporary small-scale food systems and communities are conducted. In combination, studies of the past and present point to the future, as the research process also involves collaborative design of ecologically sound and equitable food systems.

Preliminary results of this project proposes that diversity, network and scale are three key concepts to understand long-term sustainability of socioeconomic systems. By integrating case studies on food diversity, the mobility of people, and flows of goods and information in relation to the scale and resilience of societies and economies, this study aims to advance theories on the interrelationship between culture and environment. Other cultural factors, including technological developments, sociopolitical structure and rituals/religion, are also taken into consideration (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Mechanisms for Culture Change

Geographic Focus

Our regional focus is the North Pacific Rim. In particular, we have identified northern Japan, with its solid archaeological record and its importance to contemporary food production in Japan, as the core area of our field research. The west coast of North America, with rich traditions of ethnographic and ecological investigation as well as active contemporary food/agriculture movements, will provide main comparative case studies.  These two regions share a number of characteristics in common, including climate, vegetation, fauna, and a high level of seismic activity. There are also cultural ties with historical depth as a result of the migration of anatomically modern humans after the late Pleistocene. Historically, the abundance of small-scale economies supported by marine food exploitation and intensive nut-collecting also characterize these two regions.

Figure 2: Main research areas

Research Methods and Project Organization

The project consists of three research groups, each with several sub-projects:

1) Longue-Durée Group: Archaeological, historical, and paleoenvironmental studies are used to test our working hypothesis listed above.  Because of the long time span, these studies are capable of addressing the relationships between the factors shown in Figure 1.  These relationships include long-term consequences of the loss of diversity and associated expansion of the scale of production, the importance of networks, and changes in community and population size.

2) Contemporary Society Group: Ethnographic and sociological studies of small-scale food production systems and their associated communities are conducted to understand the complex inter-relationships among cultural and natural contributors in contemporary urban and rural settings.  Due to the lack of long time span, this group cannot directly test our working hypothesis.  Nevertheless, when compared to archaeological case studies, the increased depth of our observation provides an opportunity to evaluate the importance of small-scale food production with wide food diversity in relation to other factors listed in Figure 1.  Chemical and biological analysis of soil, water and food will provide direct evidence to evaluate the degree of human impacts on the environment.

3) Implementation, Outreach and Policy Proposal Group: Our emphasis on food diversity, network, and locally autonomous, small-scale production are used to develop academic and public outreach programs for instigating and promoting place-based, small-scale and diversified food production. In collaboration with educational programs, NPOs, NGOs and local community organizations, these programs develop alternative strategies to overcome problems and vulnerabilities of currently dominant large-scale, homogenous productions.  Our ultimate goal is to make actionable contributions to local/national policies of rural/urban developments and food policy.


The project headquarter is based at the Research Institute for Humanity and Nature (RIHN), Kyoto, Japan.  The project leader, Junko Habu, currently holds the professorship both at RIHN and the Dept. of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley.  The project places a strong emphasis on international collaboration. A total of 80 project members from multiple countries, including Japan, the United States, Canada, Russia, England and Spain, are taking part of this interdisciplinary research.

For more details of the project, please follow following links:

Long-term Sustainability through Place-Based, Small-scale Economies: Approaches from Historical Ecology

The variability and scale of subsistence and the long-term sustainability of human societies are closely related

Contact information

Project Leader: Junko Habu, Professor, Research Institute for Humanity and Nature, Kyoto Japan & Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of California, Berkeley, USA

Mailing Address:

Junko Habu, Research Institute for Humanity and Nature, 457-4 Motoyama, Kamigamo, Kita-ku, Kyoto 603-8047 Japan

Phone: +81-75-707-2240, Fax: +81-75-707-2508

E-mail: habu@berkeley.edu

Key publications

Altieri, Miguel A. and C.I. Nicholls. 2014 Agroecology and the Design of Climate Change Resilient Farming Systems. Agronomy for Sustainable Development 35(3): 869-890.

Cuthrell, Rob Q. 2013. Archaeobotanical Evidence for Indigenous Burning Practices and Foodways at CA-SMA-113. California Archaeology, 5(2): 265-290.

Grier, Colin. 2014. Landscape Construction, Ownership and Social Change in the Southern Gulf Islands of British Columbia. Canadian Journal of Archaeology, 38(1): 211-249.

Goto, Yasuo. 2014. Impacts of Hurricane Katrina and the Future of New Orleans: Global Responses to Disaster. In Fukushima University Disaster Restoration Studies Team (Ed.), Restoring and Revitalizing from Great Eastern Japan Earthquake and International Comparison, pp. 179-197. Hassakusha (in Japanese)

Habu, Junko. 2015. Mechanisms of long-term culture change and human impacts on the environment: a perspective from historical archaeology, with special reference to the Early and Middle Jomon Period of prehistoric Japan.  Quaternary Research (Japan Association for Quaternary Research) 54(5): 299-310 (in Japanese with English summary).

Habu, Junko. 2014. Post-Pleistocene Transformations of Hunter-gatherers in East Asia. Cummings, V., Peter Jordan, P., and Marek Zvelebil, M. (Eds.), Oxford Handbook of the Archaeology and Anthropology of Hunter-Gatherers. Oxford University Press, Oxford. pp. 507-520.

Habu, Junko and Mark E. Hall. 2013. Climate change, human impacts on the landscape, and subsistence specialization: historical ecology and changes in Jomon hunter-gatherer lifeways. In The Historical Ecology of Small Scale Economies, edited by Victor D. Thompson and James Waggoner, pp. 65-78.  University Press of Florida: Gainesville, FL.

Hamada, Shingo, Richard Wilk, Amanda Logan, Sara Minard, and Amy Trubek. 2015. The Future of Food Studies. Food, Culture & Society, 18 (1): 168-186.

Hosoya, Leo Aoi. 2014. The “Routine-scape” and Social Structurarization in the Formation of Japanese Agricultural Society. Geografisca Annaler: Series B, Human Geography 96 (1): 67-82.

Kanno, Tomonori. 2014. Characteristics of the Settlement in the Latter Half of the Middle Jomon Period in the middle reaches of Kitakami river, Japan Household Assemblages of Middle-Late Jomon Period. Anzai, M., and Masahiro Fukuda, M. (Eds.), Climate Change in the Holocene and Change in Jomon Cultures. Center for Tohoku Cultural Studies at the Tohoku University of Arts and Design, Yamagata. pp.9-31 (in Japanese)

Lightfoot, Kent G. 2013. Rethinking the Archaeology of Human/Environmental Interactions in Deep Time History. Schmidt, P.R, and S. Mrozowski, S. (Eds), The Death of Prehistory, pp. 183-200. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Lightfoot, Kent G., Rob Q. Cuthrell, Chuck J. Striplen and Mark G. Hylkema. 2013 Rethinking the Study of Landscape Management Practices Among Hunter-Gatherers in North America. American Antiquity, 78(2), 285-301.

Sasaki, Tsuyoshi. 2014. Japan’s Oceanic Resource: Why It Catches the World’s Attention. Shodensha: Tokyo. 256p. (In Japanese).

Shinkai, Rika, Tomonori Kanno, Naoto Yamamoto, Junko Habu, Akira Matsui, Duncan McLaren, and Dale R. Croes (in press). Excavation of a prehistoric wet site on Triquet Island in British Columbia, Canada. Quarterly of Archaeological Studies [Kokogaku Kenkyu] (in Japanese).

Takase, Katsunori, 2015. The Acceptance of Rice Agriculture and the Development of the Farming Culture [Inasaku Noko no Juyo to Noko Bunka no Keisei].  Yoshikawa Kobun-kan, Tokyo (in Japanese).

Thornton, Thomas. F. 2015. “The Ideology and Practice of Pacific Herring Cultivation among the Tlingit and Haida.” Human Ecology, 43(2): 213-223.

Yamamoto, Naoto. 2015. Sustainable Community in the Late and Final Jomon: A Look at the Tedori River Alluvial Fan in Ishikawa Prefecture.  Bulletin of the Faculty of Letters, Nagoya University, History, 61: 57-74 (in Japanese with English summary).