Humans were already screwing up the planet 3,000 years ago, archaeologists conclude in new study

A massive global study by archaeologists has revealed that humans began seriously screwing up the Earth thousands of years earlier than we thought.

When we think about how humans have been changing the planet, we often think about the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s to the present day. But because of how interconnected our world is through technology, archaeologists have been able to talk to each other from around to globe in order to participate in one of the most comprehensive studies of humanity’s affect on Earth ever undertaken.

And the results make it clear that while humans have done more today to hurt the global landscape than ever before, ancient humans also did their fair share of it as well.

Some 1300 archaeologists were invited to complete an 80-question survey about land use in ancient times. In all, 711 responses came in from 255 of them, some of whom turned in multiple surveys if they had expertise in more than one region of the world.

Their answers painted a picture of a world being transformed by deforestation and agriculture as early as 3,000 years ago after humans began abandoning the hunter-gatherer lifestyle in favor of farming.

According to the study published by Science:

Environmentally transformative human use of land accelerated with the emergence of agriculture, but the extent, trajectory, and implications of these early changes are not well understood. An empirical global assessment of land use from 10,000 years before the present to 1850 CE reveals a planet largely transformed by hunter-gatherers, farmers, and pastoralists by 3000 years ago, considerably earlier than the dates in the land-use reconstructions commonly used by Earth scientists.

Synthesis of knowledge contributed by more than 250 archaeologists highlighted gaps in archaeological expertise and data quality, which peaked for 2000 yr B.P. and in traditionally studied and wealthier regions. Archaeological reconstruction of global land-use history illuminates the deep roots of Earth’s transformation and challenges the emerging Anthropocene paradigm that large-scale anthropogenic global environmental change is mostly a recent phenomenon.

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The Anasazi civilization in North America is thought to have collapsed due to overexploitation of resources and climate change. Image via Wikimedia.

It makes perfect sense. After all, the oldest bread predates agriculture by 4,000 years about 14,000 years ago in Jordan, so humans were already aware they could gather grains and bake them. By 10,000 years ago, the earliest time the study looks at, humans kicked agriculture into high gear, clearing swaths of forests to make way for crops and livestock.


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As humans learned to grow crops such as wheat used to bake bread, they turned to farming and cleared forests to do it. Image via Wikimedia.

“Recorded history has provided information with which to chart Earth’s environmental changes during recent centuries,” Oxford University’s Neil Roberts wrote in an editorial. “But how can it be determined if and when human activities transformed Earth during the time before written records? This question is prompted in part by the hypothesis that prehistoric deforestation and rice farming might explain the preindustrial upturn in atmospheric methane and carbon dioxide concentrations after ∼7000 years ago.”


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Rice paddies in Asia have altered the landscape and are partly responsible for a sharp rise in carbon dioxide levels. Image via Wikimedia.

Related: Anthropologists learn that life was easier and bones were stronger when people were hunter-gatherers


So, humans were already harming the planet through uncontrolled agriculture, and then the Industrial Revolution took the destruction to a whole new level. And as the agriculture industry continues to grow, more and more trees are being cleared for pasture and plantations, adding even more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere and depriving us of trees that absorb them.

Field Museum MacArthur Curator of Anthropology Gary Feinman, one of the authors who participated in the study, said that the results demonstrate the need to look at past land abuses.

“Through this crowdsourced data, we can see that there was global environmental impact by land use at least 3,000 years ago,” he told Heritage Daily. “And that means that the idea of seeing human impact on the environment as a newer phenomenon is too focused on the recent past. About 12,000 years ago, humans were mainly foraging, meaning they didn’t interact with their environments as intensively as farmers generally do. And now we see that 3,000 years ago, we have people doing really invasive farming in many parts of the globe.”

In fact, farming may have been responsible for nearly destroying ancient civilization. Populations in the Levant began building large settlements that became ancient cities once farming made the possibility of a single non-mobile food source a reality. More food ultimately resulted in larger families and larger populations, which strained resources.

Soon, whole cities like Çatalhöyük in Turkey were abandoned and humans would not return to urbanization until thousands of years later when we appear to have learned how to deal with all the issues created by staying in one place.


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Ancient cities like Çatalhöyük in Turkey and elsewhere were abandoned after centuries of uncontrolled agriculture and deforestation left the community desperate for resources. Image via Wikimedia.

“We saw an accelerated trajectory of environmental impact,” Field Museum head anthropologist Ryan Williams says. “While the rate at which the environment is currently changing is much more drastic, we see the effects that human impacts had on the Earth thousands of years ago.”

Indeed, the affects of agriculture on our planet today is more than evident. The Amazon rainforest is on fire because farmers and miners want access to more land for human use as our demand for beef and other agricultural products grows.


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The effects of deforestation in the Amazon as seen from space. Image via Wikimedia.

Ten billion hungry mouths

While farming thousands of years ago had sustainability issues we eventually figured out, our planet now has a population of 7 billion people that is set to hit 10 billion in just a few decades. We already produce enough food every year to feed 10 billion people, and that is unsustainable. Just imagine how unsustainable it will be once the population actually hits that number.

And it’s likely that this study could have worse results when you factor in that wars and political instability have prevented archaeologists from considering the effects of human land use in certain places.

“We need to invest in these regions that haven’t been as intensively studied,” Williams says. “If we incentivize and create opportunities for researchers there then you can just imagine what the results of the next study like this could be.”

Beyond the results, the study itself is a milestone because of the worldwide cooperation between experts in the field.

“What really got me here was not so much the results, although I think that the results provide a foundation to support what many archaeologists suspected,” Feinman said. “But I think the most innovative aspect of this was the whole research design. To gather information from 250 scholars and to make sure that the whole world was covered, that’s really something.”

The study also shows that we can learn something from our ancient ancestors that may help us solve the problems we are dealing with in the present day.

“There’s such a focus on how the present is different from the past in contemporary science,” Feinman explained. “I think this study provides a check, a counter-weight to that, by showing that yes, there have been more accelerated changes in land use recently, but humans have been doing this for a long time. And the patterns start 3,000 years ago. It shows that the problems we face today are very deep-rooted, and they are going to take more than simple solutions to solve. They cannot be ignored.”

A popular tourist site today, overexploitation of resources led to the decline of the civilization that built Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Image via Wikimedia.

Ancient peoples had to learn how to balance agriculture and nature in order to create sustainable civilizations. Some failed. Others did not. But we are currently failing on a worldwide scale, which means it won’t just be a single civilization that disappears, it will be everyone on the planet. We could lose everything if we don’t curb destructive agriculture and deforestation. Sustainability must be the gold standard. If not, history won’t even be able to judge us because there will be no one left to write it.

Featured Image: Wikimedia

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