Ecologists have only just begun to take a comprehensive look at humans’ roles in their ecosystems. Now, the same SFI researchers who’ve led those efforts are expanding to consider the myriad ways pre-industrial humans interacted with other species — and what those interactions could reveal about culture, technology, and modern society.

The new project grew out of Vice President for Science Jennifer Dunne’s work on reconstructing food webs, networks of who eats whom in ecosystems. Dunne and colleagues know that humans do much more than eat plants and animals — we also use them for housing, clothing, rituals, tools, landscaping, and more. Exploring how such interaction vary between cultures and across time, they reasoned, could reveal much about how human societies function and evolve.

It’s a major undertaking. “No one has ever compiled or analyzed data like this,” Dunne says, but “we’ve identified five key places where we can do this now,” including sites in the Pacific Northwest, the U.S. Southwest, the western Australia, Iceland, and French Polynesia.

“It’s exploratory, but it’s kickstarting what could be a major research agenda,” she says.

This February's working group gathers ecologists, network scientists, archaeologists, and anthropologists who work in the five places to set the foundations for uniform data compilation, explore possible analyses and modeling, and formulate new kinds of questions — for example, how our interactions with other species reflect technological innovation in pre-industrial societies.

For example, Aleuts in Alaska ate sea lion meat, but hunting sea lions required sea lion hides to cover kayaks and parts of other species to make boats, protective clothing, knives to cut meat, and spears for hunting.

In other words, the human-sea lion feeding link is more than grabbing a sea lion and biting into it. “There’s a mini-network of supporting links of different types that goes into making certain kinds of interactions realizable,” Dunne says.

This multi-layer, network-based way of quantifying humans’ interactions with other species could also be used as a new way to understand how modern humans relate to and impact biodiversity at multiple scales, Dunne says.

Read more about the working group.