Humans Had Already Changed Most Land Ecosystems 12,000 Years Ago

Göbekli Tepe in what is now Turkey is the only large construction we have dating back around 12,000 years, but even without many villages, let alone cities, humans had changed most of the surface of the Earth by then. Image Credit: Teomancimit - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Antarctica aside, most of the landmass of Earth was occupied and changed by humans as far back as 12,000 years ago, an international study has concluded. This contradicts previous assumptions most of the planet was relatively unaffected by humans until the Industrial Revolution. However, the early Anthropocene changes transformed ecosystems in sustainable ways, rather than causing their collapse as has happened more recently. The findings could change minds about the best forms of environmental management.

Reconstructions of historic global land use have usually treated much of the planet as effectively uninhabited as recently as 500 years ago. However, a collaboration between scientists from ten institutions in six countries found this was not the case. "Our work shows that most areas depicted as 'untouched,' 'wild,' and 'natural' are actually areas with long histories of human inhabitation and use," said Professor Erle Ellis of the University of Maryland in a statement.

Before intensive agriculture, human influence was exerted through practices such as seasonal burning, widespread hunting, and the distribution of seeds.

Ellis notes the study’s conclusions don’t contradict the view that the Earth faces a fundamentally new peril. For most of the human occupation of the bulk of the planet; “Societies used their landscapes in ways that sustained most of their native biodiversity and even increased their biodiversity, productivity, and resilience," he said.

Last week, we learned that 97 percent of the planet has been disturbed by human presence. Yet Ellis continued; "Our global maps show that even 12,000 years ago, nearly three-quarters of terrestrial nature was inhabited, used, and shaped by people. Areas untouched by people were almost as rare 12,000 years ago as they are today." These maps, revealing the type of human alteration of the planet at many dates over time, can be seen and interacted with online.

Ellis and others’ interpretation has been published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

The fact people changed environments as they entered them, but maintained the health of the environment, proves; “The problem is not human use per se,” Professor Nicole Bolvin of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History said. "The problem is the kind of land use we see in industrialized societies – characterized by unsustainable agricultural practices and unmitigated extraction and appropriation."

“The current biodiversity crisis can seldom be explained by the loss of uninhabited wildlands, resulting instead from the appropriation, colonization, and intensifying use of the biodiverse cultural landscapes long shaped and sustained by prior societies,” the paper argues.

By implication, humans can stop – and often reverse – the damage we are doing while still gaining benefit from these areas. Frequently the quickest route to doing so is to embrace the knowledge of the people who managed the areas sustainably for so long. Where such knowledge survives, “Empowering the Indigenous, traditional, and local people who know their natures in ways that scientists are only beginning to understand," is essential Ellis argued.

Elsewhere, the link between indigenous peoples and their land is so broken this knowledge is not available, and science will need to perform a slow process of rediscovery.

Only five percent of the world’s land is currently managed, even partially, by indigenous people – but around 80 percent of terrestrial biodiversity survives there, co-author Professor Darren J. Ranco of the University of Maine notes.

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