Saturday, August 5, 2017

The deep human prehistory of global tropical forests and its relevance for modern conservation

Patrick Roberts, Chris Hunt, Manuel Arroyo-Kalin, Damian Evans and Nicole Boivin
Nature Plants 3, Article number: 17093 (2017)
published online on August 3rd, 2017


Significant human impacts on tropical forests have been considered the preserve of recent societies, linked to large-scale deforestation, extensive and intensive agriculture, resource mining, livestock grazing and urban settlement. Cumulative archaeological evidence now demonstrates, however, that Homo sapiens has actively manipulated tropical forest ecologies for at least 45,000 years. It is clear that these millennia of impacts need to be taken into account when studying and conserving tropical forest ecosystems today. Nevertheless, archaeology has so far provided only limited practical insight into contemporary human–tropical forest interactions. Here, we review significant archaeological evidence for the impacts of past hunter-gatherers, agriculturalists and urban settlements on global tropical forests. We compare the challenges faced, as well as the solutions adopted, by these groups with those confronting present-day societies, which also rely on tropical forests for a variety of ecosystem services. We emphasize archaeology's importance not only in promoting natural and cultural heritage in tropical forests, but also in taking an active role to inform modern conservation and policy-making.

more from the paper:

Early impacts

In the last ten years, the archaeologically-acknowledged start date of human inhabitation of tropical forests has quadrupled in age. There is now clear evidence for the use of tropical forests by our species in Borneo [12-13,34] and Melanesia [35] by c. 45 ka; in South Asia by c. 36 ka [36]; and in South America by c. 13 ka [37]. There are suggestions of earlier rainforest occupation c. 125 ka in Java [38-39], c. 60 ka in the Philippines [40], c. 100 ka in China [41], and in Africa perhaps from the first appearance of Homo sapiens c. 200 ka [42], though further research is required to verify these cases [43]. Early modern humans adapted to diverse tropical forest formations, ranging from the sub-zero temperatures of montane forests to dense, humid, evergreen rainforests, undertaking sophisticated forest mammal hunting and plant processing (e.g. 44). Moreover, people did not just adapt passively to these environments, but from the onset modified them in fundamental ways [10,45], with outcomes that have affected the natural histories of these forests to the present day.

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