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Our anthropogenic earth – the last 3,000 years

May 3, 2013

Below I have posted a portion of a recent article from Scientific American, which briefly explores some of the history of human-induced transformation of the earth.  The article, titled “3,000 Years of Abusing the Earth on a Global Scale”, is interesting and offers an overview of current research related to the long history of environmental impact humans have had on the globe however the focus seems to be steeped in the history of “abusive human impact” and does not give mention to any examples potentially non-abusive land management methods employed by humans in pre-Colombian times.

The domestication of landscapes through traditional swidden-fallow forest farming has long been a subject of great interest to me. Here is a link to an article I wrote on Complex agroforestry and the anthropogenic forests / landscapes of pre-Colombian S. America. And if you’re interested, two more related articles on Chinampa: Raised-Bed Hydrological Agriculture  and  The Domesticated Landscapes of Los Llanos de Moxos, Bolivia.

And below, a portion of the article from Scientific American followed by a link to the full article…

3,000 Years of Abusing the Earth on a Global Scale

A new perspective emanating from archaeology and ecology suggests that humanity has spent thousands of years making widespread and profound changes to the “natural” world

By David Biello

“Wherever you go on this blue, green and white globe of ours, odds are some person has been there before you—and left a mark. That’s because the hunting, farming or burning practices of our most distant ancestors have shaped most land areas on the planet, argues an interdisciplinary team of archaeologists and ecologists in Proceedings of the National Academyof Sciences. If we are indeed living in the Anthropocene—a new geologic epoch brought on by the outsized environmental effects of the human species—then this new interval isn’t just a few hundred years old, it is older than the industrial revolution.

The researchers set out to investigate just how long human being have been profoundly changing the environment on land. “This is a super important question for the identity of humanity,” argues ecologist Erle Ellis of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, a co-author. “Are we the people who transformed the planet for hundreds of generations, or the people who just recently started destroying things?”

To answer that outstanding question the researchers started with a vast spread of archaeological and ecological data from around the world, particularly micro charcoal records from sediment cores. The charcoal delivers a long-term record of human burning, whether intentional or accidental, that coincides with the arrival of modern humans in a particular area. That arrival also often coincides with the extinction of large predators and large animals, generally.

But how exactly do humans impact a new environment? Scientists have used computer models that aim to estimate how quickly and how profoundly Homo sapiens change the landscape. One option estimates land use simply based on the number of humans around, assuming a minimum acreage required to support a person. The other model has humans relatively quickly sprawl through an entire area, but then contract to intensify land use in support of a larger but denser population. This might be dubbed the laziness principle—humans invest the least amount of work, technology or any other resource as possible to survive and even thrive, these researchers argue. “People are doing the easiest thing, knocking out top predators early on,” Ellis explains. “There’s a pretty big impact per person to make a living, [because people are] burning big swathes of forest just to make it easier to get some game.””

Read full article here…

5 Comments leave one →
  1. May 4, 2013 10:08:53 am

    Your article on complex agroforestry is really interesting. I hadn’t given much thought to how people would have once managed the forests in a much more subtle but complex way in order to grow food and provide year round sustenance. I think we’ve all been taught that people just hunted and used what was there without “managing” the forests in any significant way, and that only in the last few hundred years have we started managing forests for timber (and not a lot else). Thanks I learned a lot.

    • May 4, 2013 10:08:37 pm


      Thank you for taking the time to read the article, and for the comment. I know the UK has some good examples of working temperate climate agroforestry systems and agro-silvo-pastoral systems (integrating food, timber, and livestock), although I’ve never personally seen any in that part of the world… there seems to be somewhat of a revival in this approach to land management.

      If you’re interested, and when you have the time, take a look at the following two parts of a related article I wrote on pre-colombian landscape domestication in the Americas….

      Part I:

      And part II:

      • May 4, 2013 10:08:19 pm

        Thank you very much, I’ll certainly read the articles, it’s a very interesting subject about which I know little as all my work has been in managing woodlands solely for nature conservation in an extremely modified landscape, so it’s great to read about different perspectives.

  2. May 4, 2013 10:08:30 pm

    Thank you from the depths of my heart for your generous soul and sharing all of this~

  3. May 4, 2013 10:08:23 pm

    I was only thinking about this very thing yesterday. How we do what we do nowadays with reckless abandon because someone, somewhere decided that there was money/power in it. I was thinking about how people would have discovered ALL of the benefits of the tree/plant/shrubs that they discovered had edible or medicinal properties and how carefully they would have tested it all. How far we have come from our origins! I doubt that we would be seen as anything other than a major threat to our distanc ancestors.

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