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Socio-Natural Landscapes


Landscapes encompass flows, materials, energy, information, human decision making and real-world contexts of human systems co-constructed by cultural and natural processes. While many studies focus primarily on physical landscapes (landforms, sediments, soils, plants, animals) and others on social and ideational landscapes (arrangements of people, communities, fields, monuments), in reality most of Earth’s landscapes today are a complex product of long-term interactions of both anthropogenic and biophysical processes. Despite popular concern over human effects on the atmosphere, it is in the transformation of Earth’s landscapes where humanity has had, and still has, its most profound effects.

Current and future directions

Landscapes today cannot be understood without studying both human and natural systems and the ways in which they interact. Landscapes are dynamic, constantly changing in response to recursive social and natural processes. Landscapes are historically contingent, complex systems, incorporating many distinct and discrete social/natural components that can self-organize in nested networks. Diverse conceptual frameworks, from behavioral ecology to environmental design, are being applied to methods that are increasingly enhanced by computer technology to study the phenomena we call landscapes. Remote sensing, geophysical survey and regional-scale sampling are important new trends in data collection. Examples of new analytical approaches include studies of intervisibility and viewsheds, cost and movement surfaces and physical and social networks. Modeling – including agent-/individual-based simulation, surface and landcover dynamics and human settlement change – is an especially important tool being applied to study landscape change.

School strengths

Landscapes are the focus of much archaeological research and graduate training at ASU, helping link human prehistory with present-day ecological issues. Active research employing these approaches spans Hominid foragers through urban civilizations, and deal with topics such as the evolution of modern humans, diet and disease, cosmology, the spread of agriculture and the rise and collapse of complex societies. Landscape-focused archaeology has helped propel ASU to a nationally top-ranked position in this domain. There are unique opportunities here to make complex human-natural landscapes an intellectual theme that connects many academic and research programs.

Key ASU Fieldwork Regions: Near East/Mediterranean, Southwestern U.S., Mesoamerica


Landscape studies require a transdisciplinary perspective, encouraging collaborative partnerships across units at ASU. For example, research on complex urban landscapes could interface with the School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture or faculty in History or Art History. Studies focusing on the ecological dimensions of landscapes could partner with the School of Sustainability. The School of Earth and Space Exploration is launching new initiatives centered on human transformations of the earth’s surface. Likewise, the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning is developing programs in geographic information science. Rather than just technical proficiency in GIS, this is a commitment to the science of landscape analysis using new computational methods.

Key school archaeology faculty

Michael Barton, Professor, School of Human Evolution and Social Change
Director, Center for Social Dynamics and Complexity
Affiliated Faculty, Center for Evolution and Medicine

Jane Buikstra, Regents' Professor, School of Human Evolution and Social Change
Founding Director, Center for Bioarchaeological Research

Michelle Hegmon, Professor, School of Human Evolution and Social Change
Senior Sustainability Scientist, Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability

Curtis Marean, Foundation Professor, School of Human Evolution and Social Change
Associate Director, Institute of Human Origins

Ben Nelson, Professor, School of Human Evolution and Social Change

Margaret Nelson, President's Professor, School of Human Evolution and Social Change
Associate Dean, Barrett Honors College

Sander van der Leeuw, Foundation Professor, School of Human Evolution and Social Change & School of Sustainability
Distinguished Sustainability Scientist, Julie Ann Wrigley Institute of Sustainability
Director, Center for Biosocial Complex Systems, ASU-Santa Fe Institute
Co-Chair, Complex Adaptive Systems @ASU


Other key school faculty

Christopher Boone, Professor, School of Human Evolution and Social Change
Dean, School of Sustainability
Affiliated Faculty, School of Geographical Science and Urban Planning