Celebrities and environmentalist jetting off to exotic locations to talk about climate change, renewable energy, and organic food may make you feel like the modern world is killing the planet but a huge collaborative study reveals that early humans across the entire globe were ruining their environments as far back as 10,000 years ago.
Farther back, 12,000 years ago, humans were mainly foraging, meaning they didn't interact with their environments as farmers do. By 3,000 years ago, farmers were feeding nations and causing free trade in many parts of the globe.
Humans in these time periods began clearing out forests to plant food and domesticating plants and animals to make them dependent on human interaction. Early herders also changed their surroundings through land clearance and selective breeding. While these changes were at varying paces, the examples are now known to be widespread and can provide insight on how we came to degrade our relationship with the Earth and its natural resources.The myth of "leave no trace" in ancient cultures
The study, led by Lucas Stephens of the University of Pennsylvania, is a part of a larger project called ArchaeoGLOBE, where online surveys are used to gather information from regional experts on how land use has changed over time in 146 different areas around the world. Land use can be anything from hunting and gathering to farming to grazing animals.
And as it turns out, many of the ways ancient people used the land weren't as "leave-no-trace" as many have imagined.
A panoramic view of the Byan Zhurek valley and setting near Tasbas. Credit: Michael Frachetti/Washington University in St. Louis (2011)
"Through this crowdsourced data, we can see that there was global environmental impact by land use at least 3,000 years ago," says Gary Feinman, MacArthur Curator of Anthropology at the Field Museum and one of the study's 250 authors. "And that means that the idea of seeing human impact on the environment as a newer phenomenon is too focused on the recent past."
The results, however, are more optimistic than they seem. Now that researchers know the beginnings of environmental impact, they can use this data to study what solutions ancient civilizations used to mitigate the negative effects of deforestation, water scarcity, and more.