Archaeologists develop a new picture of the human footprint

UO archaeologist Jon Erlandson on the Channel Islands

Humanity’s ecological footprint is deeper than previously thought, according to a new crowdsourced report published in the Aug. 30 issue of Science.

A collaborative effort by a team of scholars that included University of Oregon archaeologists Jon Erlandson, Scott Fitzpatrick and Gyoung-Ah Lee, the report reveals a planet that had been significantly transformed by human communities by 4,000 years ago.

That timeline contradicts the commonly held belief that human-driven ecological change is a recent phenomenon initiated by the rise of agriculture.

Conducted by the ArchaeoGlobe Project with support from the National Science Foundation, the study involved an unprecedented synthesis of global archaeological data, summarizing knowledge contributed by more than 250 archaeologists and examining evidence from 146 regions covering all continents except Antarctica.

The data were gathered through questionnaires that focused on 10 distinct time slices beginning 10,000 years ago and ending in 1850. Archaeologists contributed and interpreted data related to four land-use categories: foraging-hunting-gathering-fishing, extensive agriculture, intensive agriculture and pastoralism.

“The result is the first-ever archaeological map of global land use patterns, stretching back 10,000 years,” said Erlandson, executive director at the UO's Museum of Natural and Cultural History and a leading expert in the archaeology of early Pacific seafarers.

The map reveals a worldwide pattern of human-caused environmental change associated with preagricultural, foraging economies. 

“Most of the world’s ecosystems were influenced by humans well before the domestication of plants and animals,” said Fitzpatrick, associate director at the museum, “with forager-hunter-gatherer societies sometimes initiating substantial and irreversible changes in a region’s species mix.”

Erlandson said that the Pacific Coast is a key example.

“In California and Oregon, native peoples actively managed and modified terrestrial ecosystems for many millennia, through a combination of landscape burning and other practices,” he said.

The study also reveals important gaps in global archaeological knowledge, identifying regional “cold spots” about which land-use studies remain relatively scarce. These regions, concentrated in Central and West Africa and Southeast Asia, are represented in the study by general accounts from local experts.

Fitzpatrick, whose research focuses on Caribbean and Pacific Islands archaeology, said that by exposing these gaps, the study becomes an important tool for research design.

“It will help archaeologists prioritize future fieldwork and data collection to develop a more complete global picture of past land use,” Fitzpatrick said.

Lee, a professor in the UO Department of Anthropology, contributed to the research through her expertise on human-environmental interactions in early East Asia, particularly the transition from hunting and gathering to a dependence on agriculture.

The ArchaeoGlobe Project was organized by Erie Ellis of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and Lucas Stephens, a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania and the study’s lead author. The project also included contributions from Torben Rick, curator of North American archaeology at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, and Todd Braje of the California Academy of Sciences, both UO alumni who studied with Erlandson.

“The project responds to a growing need within the climate modeling community to map land use and related changes over the millennia,” Erlandson said. "The more we know about the patterns of anthropogenic change across deep time, the better equipped we are to make predictions about our collective future.” 

—By Kristin Strommer, Museum of Natural and Cultural History

Image shows graph of changes in widespread land uses over time
The research pulled together assessments of land use around the world from more than 250 archaeologists. The graphic provides a snapshot of how land-use practices in different forms (foraging, pastoralism, agricultural and urbanism) have risen and fallen from 10,000 years ago to 1850. (Image: ArchaeoGlobe/Science)