Crowd-Sourced Archaeology Shows Thousands of Years of Human Influence

The archaeological site of El Palmillo with cultivated fields in the foreground. (Linda M. Nicholas / Field Museum)

(CN) – Much has been made about the taming of the wild, uninhabitable country by pioneers who are romanticized in literature and history books, but a study released Thursday reveals global transformation from humans thousands of years ago has been underestimated.

Six thousand years ago, some form of agriculture was carried out in nearly half of the world and by 3,000 years ago it was a widespread way of life. Meanwhile, livestock raising spread from Southwest Asia to North Africa and Eurasia 8,000 years ago, much earlier than previous estimated, according to the study published in the journal Science.

Estimates of human impact on Earth’s climate, geology and ecosystems range from the middle of the 20th century to the beginning of the Agricultural Revolution roughly 15,000 years ago, leaving a lot of gray space to be debated among experts.

Researchers crowdsourced 250 archaeologists across the globe to determine human activity. Scientists from the University of Washington, University of Maryland Baltimore County and the Max Plank Institute for the Science of Human History say humans began to fundamentally alter the land 3,000 years ago.

In the survey, titled the AchaeoGLOBE Project, scientists analyzed landmasses from approximately 10,000 years ago up to the year 1850, about a decade after the end of the Industrial Revolution which saw urbanized centers blanketed with soot and ash.

The study results showed foraging, gathering, hunting and fishing were common in most parts of the world 10,000 years ago, but was on the decline by 3,000 years ago in more than half the world’s regions. Farming did not replace hunting and gathering, but the two methods of survival coincided in certain areas of the globe.

Lucas Stephens led the study while a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania and a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. He said the study opens the door to global collaboration between archaeologists.

“This type of work causes us to rethink the role of humans in environmental systems, particularly in the way we understand ‘natural’ environments,” said Stephens, now a research analyst with the Environmental Law & Policy Center in Chicago.

While there was an abundance of information for certain parts of the globe versus others, researchers say the study results show the historical human impact on the environment and how this information can be used to tackle climate change.

The complex issues that shaped history, like whether hunter and gatherers set fire to forests to improve their hunting, and how migration patterns of nomadic groups impacted agriculture trends, can all be considered when discussing climate change.

A proposed epoch to measure the time in which human activity and the impact to the global ecosystem and climate has been referred to as the Anthropocene. There is no one agreed upon definition for this time range but it’s a term recognized in the science community.

“It’s time to get beyond the mostly recent paradigm of the Anthropocene and recognize that the long-term changes of the deep past have transformed the ecology of this planet, and produced the social-ecological infrastructures – agricultural and urban – that made the contemporary global changes possible,” co-author Erle Ellis of the University of Maryland Baltimore County said.

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