skip to main content


The NSF Public Access Repository (NSF-PAR) system and access will be unavailable from 11:00 PM ET on Friday, July 12 until 9:00 AM ET on Saturday, July 13 due to maintenance. We apologize for the inconvenience.

Title: People have shaped most of terrestrial nature for at least 12,000 years
Archaeological and paleoecological evidence shows that by 10,000 BCE, all human societies employed varying degrees of ecologically transformative land use practices, including burning, hunting, species propagation, domestication, cultivation, and others that have left long-term legacies across the terrestrial biosphere. Yet, a lingering paradigm among natural scientists, conservationists, and policymakers is that human transformation of terrestrial nature is mostly recent and inherently destructive. Here, we use the most up-to-date, spatially explicit global reconstruction of historical human populations and land use to show that this paradigm is likely wrong. Even 12,000 y ago, nearly three quarters of Earth’s land was inhabited and therefore shaped by human societies, including more than 95% of temperate and 90% of tropical woodlands. Lands now characterized as “natural,” “intact,” and “wild” generally exhibit long histories of use, as do protected areas and Indigenous lands, and current global patterns of vertebrate species richness and key biodiversity areas are more strongly associated with past patterns of land use than with present ones in regional landscapes now characterized as natural. The current biodiversity crisis can seldom be explained by the loss of uninhabited wildlands, resulting instead from the appropriation, colonization, and intensifying use of the biodiverse cultural landscapes long shaped and sustained by prior societies. Recognizing this deep cultural connection with biodiversity will therefore be essential to resolve the crisis.  more » « less
Award ID(s):
1753186 1645887
Author(s) / Creator(s):
; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ; ;
Date Published:
Journal Name:
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Page Range / eLocation ID:
Medium: X
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
More Like this
  1. Abstract

    Sustaining the organisms, ecosystems and processes that underpin human wellbeing is necessary to achieve sustainable development. Here we define critical natural assets as the natural and semi-natural ecosystems that provide 90% of the total current magnitude of 14 types of nature’s contributions to people (NCP), and we map the global locations of these critical natural assets at 2 km resolution. Critical natural assets for maintaining local-scale NCP (12 of the 14 NCP) account for 30% of total global land area and 24% of national territorial waters, while 44% of land area is required to also maintain two global-scale NCP (carbon storage and moisture recycling). These areas overlap substantially with cultural diversity (areas containing 96% of global languages) and biodiversity (covering area requirements for 73% of birds and 66% of mammals). At least 87% of the world’s population live in the areas benefitting from critical natural assets for local-scale NCP, while only 16% live on the lands containing these assets. Many of the NCP mapped here are left out of international agreements focused on conserving species or mitigating climate change, yet this analysis shows that explicitly prioritizing critical natural assets and the NCP they provide could simultaneously advance development, climate and conservation goals.

    more » « less
  2. Cities and agricultural fields encroach on the most fertile, habitable terrestrial landscapes, fundamentally altering global ecosystems. Today, 75% of terrestrial ecosystems are considerably altered by human activities, and landscape transformation continues to accelerate. Human impacts are one of the major drivers of the current biodiversity crisis, and they have had unprecedented consequences on ecosystem function and rates of species extinctions for thousands of years. Here we use the fossil record to investigate whether changes in geographic range that could result from human impacts have altered the climatic niches of 46 species covering six mammal orders within the contiguous United States. Sixty-seven percent of the studied mammals have significantly different climatic niches today than they did before the onset of the Industrial Revolution. Niches changed the most in the portions of the range that overlap with human-impacted landscapes. Whether by forcible elimination/introduction or more indirect means, large-bodied dietary specialists have been extirpated from climatic envelopes that characterize human-impacted areas, whereas smaller, generalist mammals have been facilitated, colonizing these same areas of the climatic space. Importantly, the climates where we find mammals today do not necessarily represent their past habitats. Without mitigation, as we move further into the Anthropocene, we can anticipate a low standing biodiversity dominated by small, generalist mammals.

    more » « less
  3. Airborne laser scanning has proven useful for rapid and extensive documentation of historic cultural landscapes after years of applications mapping natural landscapes and the built environment. The recent integration of unoccupied aerial vehicles (UAVs) with LiDAR systems is potentially transformative and offers complementary data for mapping targeted areas with high precision and systematic study of coupled natural and human systems. We report the results of data capture, analysis, and processing of UAV LiDAR data collected in the Maya Lowlands of Chiapas, Mexico in 2019 for a comparative landscape study. Six areas of archaeological settlement and long-term land-use reflecting a diversity of environments, land cover, and archaeological features were studied. These missions were characterized by areas that were variably forested, rugged, or flat, and included pre-Hispanic settlements and agrarian landscapes. Our study confirms that UAV LiDAR systems have great potential for broader application in high-precision archaeological mapping applications. We also conclude that these studies offer an important opportunity for multi-disciplinary collaboration. UAV LiDAR offers high-precision information that is not only useful for mapping archaeological features, but also provides critical information about long-term land use and landscape change in the context of archaeological resources. 
    more » « less
  4. Protected areas serve to preserve the remaining biodiversity on our planet. However, today, only about 14% of terrestrial lands are protected, which will not be sufficient to support the planet’s fabric of life into the future ( 1 , 2 ). Humans continue to encroach on the habitats of many plants and animals. Simultaneously, the environmental conditions within protected areas are changing because of shifting climates, pollution, and invasive species, which all fundamentally alter ecosystems globally. To effectively conserve biodiversity, researchers and policy-makers must critically reexamine both the lands being preserved and the protection strategies being used in conservation. On pages 1094 and 1101 of this issue, Allan et al. ( 3 ) and Brennan et al. ( 4 ), respectively, evaluate the preservation capacity of today’s protected areas in different but complementary ways. Allan et al. estimate the minimum land area necessary to support today’s terrestrial biodiversity, whereas Brennan et al. identify the connectedness necessary to allow wildlife to successfully adapt to global change. 
    more » « less
  5. Abstract

    Meeting global commitments to conservation, climate, and sustainable development requires consideration of synergies and tradeoffs among targets. We evaluate the spatial congruence of ecosystems providing globally high levels of nature’s contributions to people, biodiversity, and areas with high development potential across several sectors. We find that conserving approximately half of global land area through protection or sustainable management could provide 90% of the current levels of ten of nature’s contributions to people and meet minimum representation targets for 26,709 terrestrial vertebrate species. This finding supports recent commitments by national governments under the Global Biodiversity Framework to conserve at least 30% of global lands and waters, and proposals to conserve half of the Earth. More than one-third of areas required for conserving nature’s contributions to people and species are also highly suitable for agriculture, renewable energy, oil and gas, mining, or urban expansion. This indicates potential conflicts among conservation, climate and development goals.

    more » « less