World's landscapes all have felt the impacts of human activity

To move toward a sustainable future we'll need to begin in the deep past, says UO archaeologist Jon Erlandson.

That’s a conclusion Erlandson and an international team of scholars draw in a collaborative paper published online ahead of print in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 

The paper reviews three decades of archaeological research to gain insight into how humans have shaped Earth’s landscapes and ecosystems. Through the combined perspectives of archaeology, paleoecology and genomics, it reveals significant patterns of human-driven environmental change — patterns that began much earlier than commonly thought. 

“People have been modifying their environments for tens of thousands of years,” Erlandson told the Washington Post. “Humans have literally impacted everything from mammoths to microbes. Most people have no idea how heavily we’ve altered things — and for how long.”

Erlandson, Philip H. Knight Professor of Arts and Sciences and executive director of the Museum of Natural and Cultural History, is a leader in the growing historical ecology movement, which uses archaeological, paleontological and historical data to inform conservation and restoration efforts.

An authority on the archaeology of seafaring and coastal cultures, Erlandson’s interest in historical ecology stems from his 30-plus years of research on California’s Channel Islands and elsewhere on the Pacific Coast. Currently, he’s drawing from that research to help The Nature Conservancy and the National Park Service develop restoration plans for the Channel Islands.  

“We’re developing a picture of what marine and terrestrial ecosystems looked like on the Channel Islands before European contact — and before overgrazing and overfishing devastated those systems,” he said. “That picture is key in helping to restore the diversity and resilience of island ecosystems.” 

Erlandson said that goals of the PNAS paper were to encourage greater cross-disciplinary interaction among scientists and to educate the public about historical ecology. 

“The archaeological record has significant implications for conservation strategies. Greater engagement among archaeologists, biologists, environmental scientists, and resource managers will help ensure that those strategies are truly effective.” 

Together, he said, we can use the past to improve the future.  

—By Kristin Strommer, Museum of Natural and Cultural History