Socio-Ecosystem Dynamics of Human-Natural Networks on Model Islands

This project will improve our understanding of coupled natural-human systems and advance the frontiers of natural and social sciences, integrating them through a focus on model systems comprising four well-studied islands before and after a millennium of human occupation. The project team will develop and test conceptual and quantitative theory that emphasizes feedbacks between humans and the complex ecological systems that support them. The project applies archaeological and paleo-ecological methods to increase understanding of the relationships between initial conditions and subsequent developmental trajectories in the four study socio-ecosystems. This understanding will be used to develop and constrain computational models which will be used to test theories regarding long-term human-ecology feedbacks. The project seeks in particular to integrate the dual roles of humans as subsistence consumers of resources and as market-driven exploiters of resources. The understanding and integrated models will be used to explore the sustainability of people's extraction of biomass (e.g., fish, fiber, fuel, and timber) from complex ecosystems in the context of ecosystem services and environmental change. This work includes three activities: 1) Build a comprehensive network theory of dynamic coupled natural-human systems including their robustness and resilience to external and internal change; 2) apply the theory to, and test it against, the introduction, persistence, and dynamics of Polynesians on four Pacific Islands; and 3) explore how the development and application of the theory might support further advances in our understanding of diversity and complexity and their interactions with ecosystem management.

This project will help us to understand how and why humans succeed or fail to live sustainably within their environment. The research examines four French Polynesian islands where humans arrived about one thousand years ago and lived sustainably on some islands but not on others. Historical and current data will be used to help develop a clearer picture of the social and ecological changes that have taken place since the islands were first occupied. The project team will build and test sophisticated computer models of humans interacting with wild and managed ecosystems. The data and models will help more fully describe and explain fundamental properties such as the resources required by human populations and the ability of ecosystems to provide food and shelter for humans over hundreds of years. They will also highlight interactions between ecosystem services and the human use and exploitation of the islands' resources. Such knowledge is critical to understanding the role of humans with respect to ecosystems and environments well beyond these islands. The project will provide fundamental knowledge about how humans can interact more sustainably and beneficially with a wide variety of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. This work will also demonstrate how environmental and social sciences such as ecology, hydrology, oceanography, archaeology, demography and economics can be integrated to push forward the frontiers of interdisciplinary science. Such advances are vital for addressing critical problems at the intersection of social and natural sciences including resource overconsumption, climate disruption and the collapse of civilizations.

Lead Investigator: 
Other Investigator(s): 
French Polynesia