Humans have used the plants and animals in their ecosystems in myriad ways: we’ve eaten them, but we’ve also used them for clothing, tools, landscaping, and more. A group of ecologists, anthropologists, and archaeologists studying pre- and non-industrial human communities in places around the world are working to compile, analyze, and model data about these many types of interactions to see how they vary or stay the same across cultures, ecologies, and environments over time.

The group, which met for the first time last February, gathers again November 6-8. This second meeting will include an additional study site, expanding the scope from five to six regional locations.

“We’re asking really outstanding researchers with deep expertise in their fields to compile new kinds of data that have never been collected before,” says SFI Vice President for Science Jennifer Dunne. “It’s exciting to bring everyone together and see opportunities for new kinds of questions to be asked and new hypotheses to be tested. is is a novel research frontier.”

Since February, the working group members have begun compiling and analyzing a wide range of data. Some existing datasets have focused on feeding interactions, like Stefani Crabtree’s recent analysis of ancient Puebloan food webs in the southwestern U.S. Some have focused more on other types of interactions, often in very species-specific ways. “For instance, in the Pacific Northwest, ethnographers have spent entire careers studying one thousand and one uses for red cedar bark by First Nations people in Canada,” says Dunne. This project means collating scattered data sets, often ones that have never been digitized, and combining them with other data sets for more comprehensive, quantitative, big-picture analyses.

Dunne hopes that exploring both simple interactions — like a human gathering a mussel from the water, breaking it open and eating it raw — and complex interactions that require multiple species and types of interactions — like a human building a kayak out of wood, hide, and gut and using a bone-tipped wooden spear to hunt and eat sea lions — could provide a “biodiversity-focused” way to understand the dynamics of human technology use and innovation across time and in relation to ecology, climate, and culture. 

Read more about the working group "Human-Centered Interactions Through Space and Time II."