Humans have been altering and managing rainforests for tens of thousands of years before it was traditionally thought we learned to farm. This revelation may completely change how we look at rainforests, what we consider to be wild environments, and when humans started to move away from hunting and to begin settling.
New research reveals that humans have probably been managing rainforests for at least 45,000 years, far earlier than many ever considered. Published in Nature Plants, the study suggests that right across the tropics, people began burning and clearing sections of forest, in order to encourage the growth of desirable plants and attract animals to hunt. This not only alters how we think of rainforests, but also at what point our ancestors shifted from being nomadic hunter-gatherers to sedentary communities.
Whether or not this activity can be classed as “farming” is not clear. In the strictest sense, the earliest evidence of farming in the tropics comes from the forests of New Guinea, where it is thought that people started cultivating yam, banana, and taro as early as 10,000 years ago. Since then, we have domesticated many forest plants and animals, including black pepper, mango, and chickens.
This study, however, suggests that people were altering the landscape to favor certain plants and animals – rather than growing and tending specific crops – for a much longer time. This is not unlike how many indigenous peoples still operate today, in which they manage what are known as “forest gardens”. In these plots of land, they encourage useful and desirable plants in an incredibly low-impact system.
The research also means we may have to radically shift what we consider to be “pristine” and “untouched” environments. We frequently look at places like the Amazon or the forests of Central Africa and consider them to be genuine representations of pure wilderness, but this is probably not the case. As long has Homo sapiens have been living in these forests, they have most likely been manipulating them too.
This is not the first time it has been suggested that rainforests once supported vast settlements. Satellites have shown how the Amazon, for example, once had a large population, and evidence is being gathered from other parts of the world as well.
“Indeed, extensive settlement networks in the tropical forests of Amazonia, Southeast Asia, and Mesoamerica clearly persisted many times longer than more recent industrial and urban settlements of the modern world have so far been present in these environments,” says co-author Dr Patrick Roberts.
More work now needs to be done to study the true extent of human settlement in rainforests.