Archaeological assessment reveals Earth’s early transformation through land use
By Lucas Stephens et al.
A synthetic history of human land use
Humans began to leave lasting impacts on Earth’s surface starting 10,000 to 8000 years ago. Through a synthetic collaboration with archaeologists around the globe, Stephens et al. compiled a comprehensive picture of the trajectory of human land use worldwide during the Holocene (see the Perspective by Roberts). Hunter-gatherers, farmers, and pastoralists transformed the face of Earth earlier and to a greater extent than has been widely appreciated, a transformation that was essentially global by 3000 years before the present.
Environmentally transformative human use of land accelerated with the emergence of agriculture, but the extent, trajectory, and implications of these early changes are not well understood. An empirical global assessment of land use from 10,000 years before the present (yr B.P.) to 1850 CE reveals a planet largely transformed by hunter-gatherers, farmers, and pastoralists by 3000 years ago, considerably earlier than the dates in the land-use reconstructions commonly used by Earth scientists. Synthesis of knowledge contributed by more than 250 archaeologists highlighted gaps in archaeological expertise and data quality, which peaked for 2000 yr B.P. and in traditionally studied and wealthier regions. Archaeological reconstruction of global land-use history illuminates the deep roots of Earth’s transformation and challenges the emerging Anthropocene paradigm that large-scale anthropogenic global environmental change is mostly a recent phenomenon.