A global assessment of Earth's early anthropogenic transformation

August 29, 2019

A global archaeological assessment of ancient land use reveals that prehistoric human activity had already substantially transformed the ecology of Earth by 3,000 years ago, even before intensive farming and the domestication of plants and animals. The results of this "big-data" approach to understanding humans' legacy on Earth suggest that early hunter-gatherers, farmers and pastoralists have had a far greater effect on Earth's landscapes - much earlier and more broadly than previously thought - which challenges the emerging Anthropocene paradigm suggesting that large-scale, human-caused environmental change is but a recent phenomenon. From the advent of agriculture and domesticated animals to increased pressures on wild animals and plants, the "heavy hand" of human activity is often written in the landscapes. It is widely recognized in archaeological sites across the globe. However, the details concerning the global extent, trajectory and environmental consequences of human land use aren't well-understood, largely due to the various incompatibilities of disparate, often qualitative, archaeological datasets. Lucas Stephens and colleagues compiled a comprehensive, global picture of ancient land use and human impacts from the early Holocene 10,000 years ago to the dawn of the modern industrial era using data from the ArchaeoGLOBE project, a crowdsourced synthesis of global archaeological knowledge from 255 researchers worldwide. Through a large-scale meta-analysis, Stephens et al. were able to generate worldwide regional assessments of land use over time. The results uncovered the deep roots of Earth's dramatic and sometimes irreversible transformation due to human activities, even before the domestication of plants and animals and intensive agriculture. "The results of these collaborative 'big data' analyses are impressive, and they tell us that human transformation of our planet began well before the first atomic bomb test, the invention of the steam engine or other proposed markers for the onset of the Anthropocene," writes Neil Roberts in a related Perspective.

American Association for the Advancement of Science

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