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Humans Began Mass Ecological Destruction 3,000 Years Ago

Humans Began Mass Ecological Destruction 3,000 Years Ago


A new paper with 250 scientific authors suggests human beings had impacted Earth’s fragile ecosystems much earlier and to a far greater extent than currently believed.

This huge collaborative study has been published on Science and its 250 archaeological authors claim humans began to impact Earth's surface between 10,000 to 8,000 years ago. Furthermore, Gary Feinman, MacArthur Curator of Anthropology at the Field Museum and one of the study’s lead authors said “Hunter-gatherers, farmers, and pastoralists had made a ‘global environmental impact’ on the land by 1,000 BC”.

The expansive study was led by Lucas Stephens of the University of Pennsylvania as part of a greater project called ArchaeoGLOBE, in which regional experts, from 146 regions around the world, complete online surveys adding to a vast database. Feinman said in the paper that for a long time factors such as “war, environment, transportation, and colonization” had prevented researchers from different parts of the world from pooling their observations.

Hadrian's Wall is one example of colonization that impacted the environment. (Butko / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Hadrian's Wall is one example of colonization that impacted the environment. (Butko / CC BY-SA 2.0)

It was the complex behind the scenes ‘research design’ that successfully gathered information from 250 scholars that Feinman said was “really something”. According to a Heritage Daily article the paper’s results show that ancient people were not so “leave-no-trace as many have imagined”.

10,000 BC - The Fall Of Harmony

Until about 12,000 years ago small groups of hunter-forager-fishers maintained what can be called a shallow relationship with nature, ‘shallow’, referring to the fact that we only really scraped around the surface of the planet having little effect on the greater cycles of nature, and the wellbeing of her ferns and fauna. Feinman wrote, by “3,000 years ago we had people doing really invasive farming in many parts of the globe”.

Human invasive farming alters the environment. (MGA73bot2 / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Human invasive farming alters the environment. (MGA73bot2 / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Mass destruction of the natural environment, including the chopping down and burning of forests for the domestication of the first seeds and animals, unfolded at “varying paces” in different places around the world. And this information, when interpreted as a whole, provided the team of scientists with fresh insights on how exactly our relationship with Earth and its natural bounties fell to pieces.

Old Lessons In A New World

Ryan Williams is associate curator and head of anthropology at the Field Museum and co-author of the study said the results show “an accelerated trajectory of environmental impact,” on the Earth thousands of years ago but that the results are maybe “more optimistic than they seem”. With this new wide-ranging information, a better understanding of how ancient civilizations balanced, and lived with, the effects of deforestation, droughts, and floods can be obtained, which Feinman noted “helps provide a historical context to today’s problems”.

Deforestation has a major environmental impact. (Cunningchrisw / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Deforestation has a major environmental impact. (Cunningchrisw / CC BY-SA 4.0)

According to the paper the destructive patterns began about 3,000 years ago which shows that our modern problems “are very deep-rooted and they are going to take more than simple solutions to solve. They cannot be ignored.”

Mining Into Nature

Today, fracking gets a lot of bad press, but the origins of this eco-monster were published in a 2015 New Scientist article which discussed ancient environmental damage. While the new paper focuses greatly on the effects of deforestation, the earlier article pointed the finger at ancient ‘mining’ with the copper mines at Faynan in Jordan at the top of the list.

Mining operations cause serious environmental damage. (Pixnio / Public Domain)

Carbon dating from the deepest part of these mines, which were thought to have begun under the reign of King Solomon, about 3,000 years ago, showed that copper smelting began here just after 950 BC, precisely the same time when the new paper says humans began having impact on the environment.

Another example is the Tonglu Mountain in China’s Hubei province, which UNESCO says has “the longest history and biggest scale of exploitation among the found ancient mines in China”. Often called ‘the cradle of Chinese Bronze Age culture’ excavators discovered “several hundred mining pits, some more than 164 feet (50 meters) deep, scattered over 1.24 square miles (2 square kilometers)” dating back to the Western Zhou dynasty, 3,000 years ago. Again, the same date given by the new team of 250 archaeologists.

Top image: Humans have had an impact on the world ecology since ancient times. Source: Shawn Harquail / CC BY-SA 2.0

By Ashley Cowie

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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