HRAF Advanced Research Centers » Natural Hazards and Cultural Transformations

Natural Hazards and Cultural Transformations

Summary of Project

Climate scientists predict not only accelerated global warming but also greater impacts of extreme events such as droughts and floods.  Such extreme events or hazards are likely to create serious social consequences, including famine, displacement, and increased violence. While climate events are becoming more extreme, natural hazards and resulting disasters are not new, and it is important to try to understand how human societies with varying livelihoods and vulnerabilities have responded to and invented solutions to such conditions both in the past and the present. The assumption is that most societies that have survived for long time periods of time have arrived at some resilient solutions, particularly when hazards were recurrent. To maximize the generalizability of results, the research conducted was worldwide and encompassed traditional societies of the recent past, ancient societies in prehistory, and contemporary countries,

This NSF-supported project* compared societies/populations normally studied by different disciplines and tested theories derived from each of the disciplines across varied geographic and temporal domains. To maximize the range of both environmental and cultural diversity, the worldwide samples compared and contrasted varied in the frequency, severity, and predictability of hazards they experienced related to food production, storage and availability. The broadest research questions asked were: How have unpredictable hazards transformed culture? Do unpredictable hazards lead to different cultural transformations than do more predictable hazards, such as chronic scarcity? Under what conditions are contingency plans overwhelmed in the face of natural hazards that are more severe or more frequent than normal? We believe answers to these questions will give insights into people’s future engagement with climate change.

Hypotheses and models were tested across three different domains and data-sets: 1) a worldwide sample of about 100 largely nonindustrial (“traditional”) societies described by ethnographers; 2) a worldwide sample of prehistoric traditions described by archaeologists; 3) and a worldwide sample of  contemporary countries with data collected through individual interviews. To compliment data on natural hazards from historical and contemporary observations, a climatologist obtained rainfall and temperature data to arrive at independent measures of environmental predictability and variability. Controlling for type of economy and political system, predictable patterns of resilient behaviors in time and space were expected in the face of unpredictable hazards—such as contingency plans, subsistence diversification, and sociocultural transformations that expand and solidify cooperation and networks. More specifically, the sociocultural transformations were theorized to include higher levels of food and labor sharing, more communal property, stronger norms and punishment (cultural "tightness"), changes in leadership strategies, and more belief that gods are involved with weather.

In our comparison of nonindustrial societies we have found that societies with more natural hazards and other resource stressors generally have: 1) more customary community food and labor sharing; 2) more subsistence diversification--both relying on different types of subsistence strategies as well as using  diverse types of land and water landscapes for collecting and producing food; 3) “tighter” cultures (those with stronger norms and more punishment for deviation from rules); and 4) beliefs that gods are involved with weather in some way and can help or harm food supply with weather. The sharing and subsistence diversification findings are consistent with the idea that these practices buffer risk and help ensure more stable access to food in the face of resource stress. Cultural “tightness” theory suggests that stronger adherence to rules may be especially adaptive under ecological threat because tightness may bolster cooperation and coordination. And yet, as a comparison of 32 nations suggests, moderate tightness might be more adaptive than too much tightness or too much looseness because extreme scores are associated with worse health and well-being outcomes. Comparisons of both nonindustrial societies and nations suggest that “tighter” societies may produce more authoritarianism and ethnocentrism.  

Not all the results were consistent with our expectations. While we had expected that natural hazards would also predict more communal (rather than private property) to buffer against loss from hazards, our results only suggested a minor role for drought. The need for mobility, such as for hunting or herding large animals in making a living better predicts communal property. 

* This 5-year project is supported by the NSF Interdisciplinary Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (IBSS) program (SMA-1416651) in a grant to the Human Relations Area Files (HRAF) at Yale University. The PI is Carol R. Ember (HRAF) and the co-PIs are: Michele J. Gelfand (University of Maryland),  Benjamin Felzer (Lehigh University),  Eric C. Jones (University of Texas-Houston), and Peter N. Peregrine (Lawrence University). The Senior Researchers are Teferi Abate Adem (HRAF) and Ian Skoggard (HRAF).

IBSS_ group indoor posed WP 637 (2).jpg 

The research team met at the HRAF building for their launch meeting in October 2014.  

Shown in the first row from the left are: Peter Peregrine, Carol Ember, Eric Jones, and Ian Skoggard.

In the rear from the left are: Michele Gelfand, Benjamin Felzer and Teferi Abate Adem.


  • PR-NaturalHazardsOverview-SASci2015 (Overview of the project plans; presented at the winter/spring meeting of the Society for Anthropological Sciences, March 25, 2015 in conjunction with the Society for Applied Anthropology, Pittsburgh, PA)
  • PR-NaturalHazardsOverview-HBES2016 (Preliminary results presented at the Human Behavior and Evolution Society meeting, June 20, 2016, Vancouver, BC, Canada: DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.1.3794.7124)
  • PR-TightLoose-AAAS2017 (Results presented at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting, February 17, 2016, Boston, MA.; see also Presenter Notes.)
  • PR-MutualAid-Gods-AAA2017-IS-short (Results presented at the American Anthropological Association meeting, November 30, 2017, Washington, DC; includes presenter notes)
  • PR-SubsistenceDiversity-AAA2017-CE (Results presented at the American Anthropological Association meeting, November 30, 2017, Washington, DC: includes presenter notes)
  • PR-TIghtLoose-AAA2018-Slides (Results presented at the American Anthropological Association meeting, November 17, 2018, San Jose)
  • PR-TightLoose-AAA2018-SlideNotes (Slide notes to accompany presentation slides at the American Anthropological Association meeting, November 17, 2018, San Jose)



  • Ember, Carol R., Eric C. Jones, Ian Skoggard, and Teferi Abate Adem. 2018. Warfare, atrocities, and political participation: eastern Africa.  Journal of Aggression, Conflict and Peace Research. DOI 
  • Ember, Carol R., Ian Skoggard, Erik Ringen, and Megan Farrer. 2018. Our better nature: Does resource stress predict beyond-household sharing? Evolution and Human Behavior 39 (4): 380-391.  DOI
  • Ember, Carol R., Teferi Abate Adem, Tahlisa Brougham, and Emily Pitek. 2020. Predictors of land privatization: cross-cultural tests of defendability and resource stress theory. American Anthropologist 122 (4): 745-758. Click here
  • Ember, Carol R., Erik Ringen, Jack Dunnington, and Emily Pitek. (2020). Resource Stress and Subsistence Diversification Across Societies. Nature Sustainability 3 (September 2020 ): 737–745. 
  • Ember, Carol R., Ian Skoggard, Benjamin Felzer, Emily Pitek, and Mingkai Jiang. (2021). "Climate Variability, Drought, and the Belief that High Gods are Associated with Weather in Nonindustrial Societies" Weather, Climate and Society, 13(2) DOI
  • Felzer, B.S., Ember, C.R., Chiang, R., and Jiang, M. 2020. The relationships of extreme precipitation and temperature events with ethnographic reports of droughts and floods in nonindustrial societies. Weather, Climate, and Society 12(1). Click here.
  • Harrington, J. R., Boski, P., & Gelfand, M. J. (2015). Culture and national well-being: Should societies emphasize freedom or constraint? Plos One, 10(6). DOI
  • Jackson, Joshua C, Marieke van Egmond, Virginia Choi, Carol R Ember, Jamin Halberstadt, Jovana Balanovic, Inger N. Basker, Klaus Boehnke, Noemi Buki, Ronald Fischer, Marta Fulop, Ashley Fulmer, Astrid C Homan, Gerben A van Kleef, Loes Kreemers, Vidar Schei, Erna Szab, Colleen Ward, and Michele Gelfand. 2019. Ecological and cultural factors underlying the global distribution of prejudice. PloS one. September 6. DOI
  • Jackson, Joshua C., Michele Gelfand, and Carol R. Ember. (2020). A Global Analysis of Cultural Tightness in Non-Industrial Societies. Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Click here.
  • Jiang, M. K., Felzer, B. S., & Sahagian, D. (2016). Characterizing predictability of precipitation means and extremes over the conterminous United States, 1949-2010*. Journal of Climate, 29(7), 2621-2633. click here
  • Jiang, M. K. F., B. S.; Nielslen, U; Medlyn, B. (2017). Biome-specific climatic space defined by temperature and precipitation predictability. Global Ecology and Biogeography, 26(11), pp.1270-1282 .Click here
  • Jiang, Mingkai, Benjamin S. Felzer, and Dork Sahagian. 2016b. Predictability of Precipitation Over the Conterminous U.S. Based on the CMIP5 Multi-Model Ensemble.  Scientific Reports 6:29962. DOI
  • Peregrine, P. N. (2017). Political participation and long-term resilience in pre-Columbian societies. Disaster Prevention and Management, 26(3), 314-329. click here
  • Peregrine, P. N. (2018). Social resilience to climate-related disasters in ancient societies: A test of two hypotheses. Weather, climate and society, 10(1), 145-161. DOI
  • Peregrine, Peter. In press. Political participation and social resilience to the A.D. 536/540 atmospheric catastrophe. In Catastrophes in context, edited by F Riede and P Sheets. New York: Berhahn.
  • Peregrine, Peter N. (2019). Reducing Post-Disaster Conflict: A Cross-Cultural Analysis Using Archaeological Data. Environmental Hazards, 18:2, 93-110, DOI
  • Peregrine, Peter N. (2020). Social Resilience to Climate Change during the Late Antique Little Ice Age: A Replication Study. Weather, Climate, and Society, 12(3), 561-573. Click here.
  • Skoggard, Ian, Carol R. Ember, Emily Pitek, Joshua Conrad Jackson, and Christina Carolus. Resource stress predicts changes in religious belief and increases in sharing behavior. Human Nature 17 August):


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