For decades, archaeologists struggled to understand past peoples, while ecology has focused on current ecosystems. However, both of these well-established scientific disciplines generally neglect the crucial questions of how humans and nature interacted and shaped each other across different geographical places and time periods. In order to fill these knowledge gaps and provide insights into how to solve today’s sustainability challenges, a team of researchers from the Santa Fe Institute (SFI) has now defined a new field of scientific inquiry, archeoecology, which attempts to examine the complex interplay between humans and the ecosystems they were embedded in.
While archeologists or paleobiologists might investigate a particular relationship, such as how humans in New Guinea raised cassowaries during the Late Pleistocene, archeoecology aims to take a much broader view. “It’s about understanding the whole ecological context, rather than focusing on one or two species,” said study co-author Jennifer Dunne, an ecologist and Vice President for Science at SFI.
According to Dunne and her archaeologist colleague Stefani Crabtree, archaeoecology’s mission is to examine the past 60,000 years of interplay between humans and ecosystems, by showing not only how humans impacted nature, but also how the ecosystems they lived in shaped human culture and dynamics. To achieve this, archeoecology weaves together research questions, methods, data, and modeling tools from archaeology, ecology, and paleoecology. “What it’s doing is breaking down a traditional, but unnecessary, disciplinary separation between archaeology and ecology,” Dunne explained.
With humanity facing the interconnected crises of climate change and biodiversity loss, archaeoecology could yield critical insights to help us navigate these contemporary environmental challenges. For instance, using an archaeoecological lens to analyze the situation of the Aral Sea during the height of the Silk Road can clarify how Soviet Union’s 1960s water diversion project and the subsequent desiccation of the Aral Sea impacted both the surrounding ecosystems and human communities.
“Every ecosystem on the planet is impacted by humans in one way or another,” Crabtree said. “It’s naïve to look at just the last 100 years because people have been impacting ecosystems everywhere for many thousands of years. We need to understand the past to understand our present and future. Archaeoecology helps with that. We can learn from these experiments with sustainability in the past,” she concluded.
An in-depth definition of this new discipline and examples of its possible applications can be found in an article published in the journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution.