Humans Have Sustainably Shaped Nature for at Least 12,000 Years

Researchers say that untouched areas were almost as rare 12,000 years ago as they are today.
Derya Ozdemir

Humans have reshaped our planet Earth's ecology through land use for at least 12,000 years, according to a new research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In contrast to today's world though, the early Anthropocene changes transformed ecosystems in sustainable ways.

The current biodiversity crisis the world is facing right now is mainly due to the appropriation, colonization, and intensified use of lands previously managed sustainably, the researchers say.

Sustainable land use and biodiversity

It is widely assumed that our planet Earth has been relatively unaffected by humans until the Industrial Revolution and some even indicated that most of the land was uninhabited as recently as 1500 CE, but this study by an interdisciplinary research team of geographers, archaeologists, anthropologists, ecologists, and conservation scientists from around the world suggests otherwise. 

The researchers saw that, in reality, most areas that are known to be "untouched," "wild," and "natural" are areas with long records of human inhabitation and use. The reason they were assumed to be so could be because "societies used their landscapes in ways that sustained most of their native biodiversity and even increased their biodiversity, productivity, and resilience," said Erle Ellis of the University of Maryland, professor of geography and environmental systems and lead author.

Mapping 12,000 years of land use and examining global patterns of land use and population were not easy tasks and required researchers from all over the world.

"Our global maps show that even 12,000 years ago, nearly three-quarters of terrestrial nature was inhabited, used, and shaped by people," said Ellis. "Areas untouched by people were almost as rare 12,000 years ago as they are today."

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Supporting sustainable land use practices

Demonstrating the connections between people and nature, the research showed that while these practices had an effect on extinction, land use by Indigenous and traditional communities helped maintain Earth's biodiversity. Today, only five percent of the world’s land is currently and somewhat partially managed by Indigenous people yet around 80 percent of terrestrial biodiversity survives in these places.

At a time where humanity is facing environmental problems that need a delicate hand, these findings show that biodiversity conservation and restoration will benefit from the support of traditional and Indigenous peoples. Better understanding these connections might be essential for us to achieve a more sustainable future.

"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," said Darren J. Ranco, associate professor of anthropology and coordinator of Native American research at the University of Maine. "These findings have particular salience for contemporary Indigenous rights and self-determination."

This comprehensive study could pave the way for the increased use of global land-use history data and a better understanding of conversing biodiversity and ecosystems. "It is clear that the perspectives of Indigenous and local peoples should be at the forefront of global negotiations to reduce biodiversity loss," says Rebecca Shaw, chief scientist at World Wildlife Fund and another study co-author.