A recent study published in the journal Nature Scientific Reports reveals that our ancestor hunter-gatherers explored food options in a way that stabilized the ecosystem, and this was especially true for the Aleut people who lived on the Sanak Island of Alaska who were super-generalist predators.
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This study was carried by ecologists and archaeologists from the Santa Fe Institute who wanted to understand how ancient humans must have related with their local environment in a way that maintained balance and ensured sustainability in their home ecosystem.
"It's the first highly detailed ecological network data to include humans, which allows us to ask questions about how they compare in their roles to other predators," said Santa Fe Institute's Vice President for Science Jennifer Dunne. "Unlike most ecological studies that ignore humans or consider them as external actors, our analysis includes them as an integral part of the ecosystem."
The researchers found that nearly 7,000 years ago, the Aleuts in Sanak Island hunted fish and water animals while also gathering shellfish and algae along shores that bordered them. And using ecological data and studying the bones and shells left in trash heaps and aligning these with oral history, the researchers were able to establish how the food chain of those days operated.
The researchers found that the Aleuts ate about one-quarter of food species in their environment and these ranged from algae to sea lions – making humans super-generalist predators. The people prey-switched when occasion demanded, meaning they consumed available food until it became scarce or unavailable due to environmental conditions or population decrease, at which time the people switched to another food source, helping the dwindling species to bounce back to numerical health.
"It's a very stabilizing behavior for the system," said Dunne of the prey-switching behavior. She however added that dwindling food population makes the hunted species to become scarce and more prized since its value goes up, creating another round of destabilization in the food chain.
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"Increased rarity increases economic value, leading to increased harvesting pressure at just the wrong time," Dunne reported. "You're not only driving those populations to extinction, you're also introducing a destabilizing dynamic into the system."