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Even ancient civilizations were already altering the environment

Ancient civilizations across the globe had an impact on the environment dating back as far as 10,000 years ago, a new study has found. 

As climate change continues to rev its engines, fueled by human activities and greenhouse gas emissions, we tend to limit our scope of how humans have impacted the planet to recent centuries.

A team of 250 researchers, led by Lucas Stephens from the University of Pennsylvania, studied land use long before the Industrial Revolution to understand how humans have been changing and affecting the environment through the years. 

The study, published in the journal Science, is part of the ArchaeoGLOBE project which uses surveys to collect data on regional land use worldwide. 

By looking at land use in ancient civilizations, we may be able to gain a better hold on our current climate crisis the authors say. 

“Through this crowdsourced data, we can see that there was global environmental impact by land use at least 3,000 years ago,” said Gary Feinman, an author of the study. “And that means that the idea of seeing human impact on the environment as a newer phenomenon is too focused on the recent past.”

As hunting and gathering societies transitioned into farming, people started to clear out forests for grazing pastures and to plant food. 

“About 12,000 years ago, humans were mainly foraging, meaning they didn’t interact with their environments as intensively as farmers generally do,” says Feinman. “And now we see that 3,000 years ago, we have people doing really invasive farming in many parts of the globe.”

The researchers note that the rate of environmental changes due to human activities is much more drastic now compared to past societies, but ancient civilizations still had an impact. 

An essential aspect of the study is having a timeline of when humans started significantly reshaping and impacting the environment. The ability to pinpoint the beginnings of environmental impact can help with creating new solutions to land degradation and overuse today. 

“There’s such a focus on how the present is different from the past in contemporary science,’ said Feinman. “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.” 

By Kay Vandette, Staff Writer 

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Image Credit: Ryan Williams, Field Museum

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