Historical commons represent self-governed governance regimes that regulate the use and management of natural and man-made shared resources. Despite growing scientific interests, analyses of commons evolution and temporal dynamics are rare and drivers of change (birth, adaptation, dissolution) remain obscure. We apply an interdisciplinary approach and address these issues from an eco-evolutionary perspective. Analyses of > 400 Dutch commons over more than a millennium (between the 9th and the 20th century) uncovered that most commons originated between 1200 and 1700, and that there was a particularly high rate of evolution during 1300–1550, a pattern intermediate to gradualism and punctuated equilibrium in biological evolution. Dissolutions of commons were rare prior to 1800 and peaked around 1850, comparable to a mass extinction in biology. Temporal trends in number, spatial distribution, density, and dispersion of historical commons were distinctive and resembled developments seen at the levels of species and individuals in the growth of biological communities and populations, in that they showed signs of saturation determined by the abundance and distribution of resources. The spatiotemporal dynamics of commons also pointed to important roles of social, economic and political factors, such as new reclamations of resources and pressure on resources due to population growth. Despite internal and external pressures, the self-governing commons studied here were very successful, in the sense that they persisted for on average >350 years. There was a weak positive relationship between the use of multiple resources and the lifespan of commons, resembling associations between diversity and persistence seen in biological systems. It is argued that eco-evolutionary perspectives can further the understanding of the long-term dynamics of commons as institutions for collective action, vitalize future research, improve management of shared goods, and advise about sustainable utilization of finite resources.
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