Painting of deer hunt by unknown artist commissioned by Qing dynasty (Wikimedia Commons)

The ArchaeoEcology Project — a group of ecologists, cultural anthropologists, geoscientists, and archaeologists studying the unique and myriad ways that humans interact with other species across space and time — meets for the third time at SFI October 15-19, 2018.

Most ecological studies don’t include humans, but for thousands of years, our species has used other species more intensively and extensively than any other organism on the planet. We use plants and animals for food, clothing and shelter. We also recombine species in novel ways: we’ve used tree parts and animal hides to construct boats; mixed dairy, sugar, and coffee for a morning drink; constructed wardrobes of leather, silk, wool, and cotton. Sometimes our use has been sustainable, and sometimes we overexploit our resources.

“As an archaeologist, I’m interested in this because it tells us about a society’s resilience,” says Stefani Crabtree, a postdoc at Penn State who coordinates the ArchaeoEcology Project with SFI Vice President for Science Jennifer Dunne. The Ancestral Puebloans of the American southwest, for instance, had seven centuries of robustness, then experienced ecological collapse. “ They dealt with the things we’re facing today — things like hunger and climate change. They migrated away from their settlements, but their culture was resilient.”

With a focus on deep time, the group has identified six cultures around the globe with good archaeological, anthropological, and ecological data for the project. The week-long October meeting gives participants a chance to meet in small breakout groups to analyze the data collected for each particular society. They will also meet as a larger working group to integrate the analyses into a comprehensive look at socio-ecological dynamics of the past.

“We are essentially trying to create a narrative of six cultures that had zero interaction with each other,” says Crabtree. “They aren’t even necessarily contemporaneous. But we’re telling a story of resilience and robustness with the environment. We’re interested in the historical data, but we’re also trying to bring the lessons of the past cultures to modern day.”

The working group is supported in part by a grant from the Coalition for Archaeological Synthesis (CfAS)