Humans have inhabited and influenced the majority of the Earth’s land for over 12,000 years, according to a new study – but not always to the detriment of the environment.
The study, led by Erle Ellis from the University of Maryland in the US, combined global patterns of population and land use over the past 12,000 years with today’s biodiversity data. It reveals that nature as we know it has been shaped by humans for thousands of years, and that the land practices of traditional and Indigenous peoples have historically helped sustain biodiversity.
“The current biodiversity crisis is often depicted as a struggle to preserve untouched habitats,” write the authors – geographers, archaeologists, anthropologists and ecologists spanning ten institutions over six countries.
But as Ellis says, their work “shows that most areas depicted as ‘untouched’, ‘wild’, and ‘natural’ are actually areas with long histories of human inhabitation and use.
“Areas untouched by people were almost as rare 12,000 years ago as they are today.”
Although some early land use practices were associated with extinctions, Ellis explains that landscapes were largely used “in ways that sustained most of their native biodiversity and even increased their biodiversity, productivity, and resilience”.
Co-author Nicole Boivin, from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany, notes that humans aren’t the problem – not exactly.
“The problem is the kind of land use we see in industrialized societies – characterised by unsustainable agricultural practices and unmitigated extraction and appropriation,” she says.
The study, which is published in the journal PNAS, adds to the increasing body of research using big data to examine humanity’s influence on the planet over thousands of years.
In 2019, the ArchaeoGLOBE project published a paper showing that deforestation due to farming and agriculture were making their mark on the planet more than 3,000 years ago, far earlier than previously estimated. The authors – a collaboration of more than 250 archaeologists, several of whom are also involved in this new study – argued that the earlier human-induced changes to the Earth challenge our notion of when the Anthropocene began.
But even though this new study pushes back widespread, human-induced land changes to 12,000 years, it also confirms – on a large scale – that land management has also impacted the environment in positive ways.
These findings may seem obvious to Indigenous and traditional peoples.
Cosmos has previously spoken on this topic with Michael-Shawn Fletcher, a Wiradjuri man and a physical geographer at the University of Melbourne.
“‘Wilderness’ is a myth – a construct of Enlightenment-era philosophies that form the nature-culture divide in European-derived societies,” says Fletcher, who was not involved in the new study.
“Many of the landscapes we know and recognise in Australia today as ‘bush’, ‘natural’ and/or ‘wilderness’ are radically different than they were under Aboriginal management.”
Fletcher’s research into the Australian landscape over time has revealed that some of the environmental problems the country faces, such as catastrophic wildfires, soil salinisation and high extinction rates, are very recent.
“They’re problems that stem from the removal of millennia-old Aboriginal management from our landscapes,” he explains. “They are the direct result of our mismanagement of Australian environments.
“The notion that we need to remove people from our landscapes to protect them is destroying this continent.”
A co-author of this new study – Darren J. Ranco, a professor from the University of Maine and a citizen of the Penobscot Indian Nation – notes that Indigenous people contribute to the management of about 5% of the world’s lands, which are home to 80% of the world’s biodiversity. However, they have been and continue to be excluded from managing or even accessing “protected” land, such as the US National Parks.
“We must also assure that new attempts to protect lands and biodiversity are not just a green-grab of Indigenous lands,” says Ranco. “We cannot recreate the worst of colonial policies meant to exclude Indigenous people, which would undoubtedly make the situation much worse for the environment and humanity.”
Rebecca Shaw, chief scientist at World Wildlife Fund and another co-author of the study, says it is “clear that the perspectives of Indigenous and local peoples should be at the forefront of global negotiations to reduce biodiversity loss.
“There is a global crisis in the way traditionally-used land has been transformed by the scale and magnitude of intensive human development. We have to change course if we are to sustain humanity over the next 12,000 years.”
Lauren Fuge is a science journalist at Cosmos. She holds a BSc in physics from the University of Adelaide and a BA in English and creative writing from Flinders University.
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