Science

Humans have reshaped Earth’s ecology for 12k years, but ancient civilizations didn’t misuse land

Humans have been reshaping ecology across most of the Earth for at least 12,000 years, but ancient civilizations did not misuse the land like today’s inhabitants, a new study reveals. 

A team of international scientists determined for most of history, humans have occupied the same amount of land across the globe and by 10000 BC, nearly three-quarters of the surface had been transformed.

The new analysis also contradicts the notion that most of Earth’s land was uninhabited as recently as 1500BC.

However, the main cause of the current biodiversity crisis is not due to the destruction of uninhabited wildlands, but rather the appropriation, colonization and misuse of resources.

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A team of international scientists determined for most of history, humans have occupied the same amount of land across the globe and by 10000 BC (pictured), nearly three-quarters of the surface had been transformed. Light green shows remote woodlands and brown is inhabited dry lands

Researchers conclude that ancient civilizations were careful to preserve biodiversity hot spots, compared to those currently living on the planet.

The analysis was led by scientists at the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC) and Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.

UMBC’s Erle Ellis, professor of geography and environmental systems and lead author, said: ‘Our work shows that most areas depicted as ‘untouched,’ ‘wild,’ and ‘natural’ are actually areas with long histories of human inhabitation and use.’

Ellis also explains that they might be interpreted like this because in these areas, ‘societies used their landscapes in ways that sustained most of their native biodiversity and even increased their biodiversity, productivity, and resilience.’

The team began this research by determining how much land mass, with the exclusion of Antarctica, was inhabited by humans over the last 12,000 years. The results show about 27 percent of land was 'untouched' 10,000 years ago – today it is abut 19 percent

The team began this research by determining how much land mass, with the exclusion of Antarctica, was inhabited by humans over the last 12,000 years. The results show about 27 percent of land was ‘untouched’ 10,000 years ago – today it is abut 19 percent

The team began this research by determining how much land mass, with the exclusion of Antarctica, was inhabited by humans over the last 12,000 years.

The results show about 27 percent of land was ‘untouched’ 10,000 years ago – today it is abut 19 percent.

‘Areas untouched by people were almost as rare 12,000 years ago as they are today,’ said Ellis.

However, the difference in inhabitants of the past and today is how the land was cared for.

Professor and co-author Nicole Boivin, of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany, said: ‘The problem is not human use per se.

‘The problem is the kind of land use we see in industrialized societies–characterized by unsustainable agricultural practices and unmitigated extraction and appropriation.’

Looking back throughout history, researchers found ancient civilizations were careful to preserve biodiversity hot spots, such as those found in the Amazon and the Congo, and as a result minimized or prevented ecological problems.

The main cause of the current biodiversity crisis is not due to the destruction of uninhabited wildlands, but rather the appropriation, colonization and misuse of resources

The main cause of the current biodiversity crisis is not due to the destruction of uninhabited wildlands, but rather the appropriation, colonization and misuse of resources

Many have speculated that the shift to a crisis stricken world was sparked by an increase of humans, but it was actually the shift into misusing our planet that set us on the dangerous path.

The Industrial Revolution, urbanization, deforestation, factory farming, mining and other irresponsible land uses are actually what are to blame. 

Darren J. Ranco, associate professor of anthropology and coordinator of Native American research at the University of Maine, said: ‘This study confirms on a scale not previously understood that Indigenous peoples have managed and impacted ecosystems for thousands of years, primarily in positive ways.

‘These findings have particular salience for contemporary Indigenous rights and self-determination.’

Ranco, a citizen of the Penobscot Indian Nation, notes that Indigenous people currently exercise some level of management of about five percent of the world’s lands, upon which 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity exists.

‘Even so, Indigenous people have been excluded from management, access, and habitation of protected lands in places such as the U.S. National Parks,’ researchers shared in a statement.

EARTH’S PROTECTED AREAS: AN IDEA ESTABLISHED IN 2010 TO CREATE SPACES FOR NATURE

In 2010 the International Union for Conservation of Nature established Earth’s protected areas.

These were first described in 2008 as ‘a clearly defined geographical space, recognised, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values.’

The IUCN claims  that the global network of protected areas stores at least 15 per cent of terrestrial carbon.

There are now more than 202,000 areas across the globe. 

They were set up with three specific goals in mind: 

  1. Valuing and conserving biodiversity
  2. Governing nature’s use and sharing its benefits equitably
  3. Deploying nature-based solutions to global challenges 
In 2010 the International Union for Conservation of Nature set up and clearly established Earth's protected areas. There are now more than 202,000 areas across the globe

In 2010 the International Union for Conservation of Nature set up and clearly established Earth’s protected areas. There are now more than 202,000 areas across the globe


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