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MAX PLANCK INSTITUTE FOR THE SCIENCE OF HUMAN HISTORY—The first review of the global impact of humans on tropical forests in the ancient past shows that humans have been altering these environments for at least 45,000 years. This counters the view that tropical forests were pristine natural environments prior to modern agriculture and industrialization. The study, published today in Nature Plants, found that humans have in fact been having a dramatic impact on such forest ecologies for tens of thousands of years, through techniques ranging from controlled burning of sections of forest to plant and animal management to clear-cutting. Although previous studies had looked at human impacts on specific tropical forest locations and ecosystems, this is the first to synthesize data from all over the world.
The paper, by scientists from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Liverpool John Moores University, University College London, and École française d'Extrême-Orient, covered three distinct phases of human impact on tropical forests, roughly correlating to hunting and gathering activities, small-scale agricultural activities, and large-scale urban settlements.
Past - Groups - Hunter-gatherers - Areas - Forests
In the deep past, groups of hunter-gatherers appear to have burned areas of tropical forests, in particular in Southeast Asia as early as 45,000 years ago, when modern humans first arrived there. There is evidence of similar forest burning activities in Australia and New Guinea. By clearing parts of the forest, humans were able to create more of the "forest-edge" environments that encouraged the presence of animals and plants that they liked to eat.
There is also evidence, though still debated, that these human activities contributed to the extinction of forest megafauna in the Late Pleistocene (approximately 125,000 to 12,000 years ago), such as the giant ground sloth, forest mastodons, and now-extinct large marsupials. These extinctions had significant impacts on forest density, plant species distributions, plant reproductive...
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