How do humans fit into and impact their ecosystems, past, present, and future? Humans traditionally have been studied as external features of ecosystems. As yet, there has been no comprehensive data or theory about the myriad ways humans interact with other species and what that means for sustainable socio-ecological systems. Jennifer Dunne thinks that by understanding how pre-industrial humans used species for food, fuel, tools, clothing, housing, ornamentation, play, and ritual in different cultures and across time, we can gain new insights on innovation, cultural and ecological change, and sustainability. Such knowledge of the past can help us shape a better future.

Recent studies have focused on how pre-industrial humans fit into complex food webs in the Aleutian Islands and in Ancient Pueblo systems in the Southwest U.S. This project builds on that research, and on an ongoing, NSF-funded effort to compare how Polynesians interacted with plant and animal species on multiple islands in French Polynesia over 1000 years of human presence. It extends into several other promising pre-industrial or non-industrial systems including the Pacific Northwest Coast, the Southwestern US, North Atlantic islands, the Western desert of Australia, and Central Europe. Each of these regions has a deep and relatively well-studied human history and well-understood ecology and environment. Compilation, comparative analysis, and modeling of such data for multiple systems would provide new opportunities to understand the structure, dynamics, and stability of coupled natural-human systems across space and time. 

The goal of the project is to compare how people interacted with plant and animal species across time and regions, and to ask questions about how the resilience or stability of coupled human-natural systems varied with environmental, ecological, and cultural conditions and dynamics. There are many interesting and novel research questions that can be pursued once comparative data on human interactions with other species is compiled. For instance, what were the ecological consequences of large-scale landscape engineering – such as the intentional burning by Australian Martu or clam gardens by Northwest Coast people? How is ecosystem function related to human disturbance? Do human use webs reveal aspects of cultural history, or hold signatures of social conflict like those that occurred pre-historically in the North Atlantic? Are changes in human uses associated with changes in human population size or location? Is the structure of human use webs insensitive to the dominant mode of production?