12,000 years ago, Man had already modified nearly three quarters of Earth’s space

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If today, man seems to destroy the environment wherever he goes, a recent study has attempted to qualify this vision. According to this work, humans would have shaped no less than 72.5% of Earth’s space 12,000 years ago. However, at that time, their imprint on Nature was not as negative as it is today.

72.5% then, 80% today

In 2021, denounce the impacts of human activities on the environment is very common. However, the list of problems to be noted is so large that it is quite difficult not to forget some. Let us mention a few: deforestation, artificialization of soils (and erosion), drying up of watercourses and other rivers, pollution of all kinds, etc. Is there a completely virgin nature on the one hand and a nature denatured by man on the other? A study published in the journal PNAS March 4, 2021 allows relativize this idea.

Erle Ellis is an expert in environmental geography at the University of Maryland (United States). She led this work of comparing maps of human populations and land use. However, thanks to data on global biodiversity, researchers have been able to go back 12,000 years backward. According to the results, the impact of humans on nature is far from new.

Credit: gorodenkoff / iStock

“Already 12,000 years ago, nearly three quarters of the earth’s surface (72.5%) were inhabited and therefore shaped by human societies, of which more than 95% were temperate forests and 90% were tropical forests”, says Erle Ellis.

However, here we have a slight difference with the current situation. Indeed, we estimate at 80% the part of the terrestrial biosphere having been transformed to different degrees by human populations.

Man lived in harmony with the environment

There are 12,000 hunter-gatherer populations as well as early farmers (and herders) often shared regional landscapes. They practiced many livelihood activities such as hunting, residential mobility, mixed farming, transhumance and fallow. Today, the way of life of humans is characterized by a homogenization of space. These include intensive monoculture, massive irrigation, the widespread use of pesticides as well as the extraction of non-renewable natural resources. Moreover, this homogenization is also the fruit of globalization.

However, Erle Ellis believes that areas that are considered today as “wild” (eg: Amazon rainforest) have a very rich biodiversity due to a human presence at one time. The researchers explain that their data shows that the richness of vertebrates and endangered species was greatest in inhabited areas up to 1500 BC. With time, this trend is reversed and the man began to have a negative impact.

Researchers believe that protecting certain areas does not have to mean emptying them of all human presence. Indeed, the local and traditional communities act in harmony with their environment and can contribute to its preservation.

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