New research suggests humans have been altering the planet's land cover for thousands of years, both for farming and large-scale fortification efforts like Hadrian's Wall. Photo by University of Queensland
Aug. 30 (UPI) -- According to a new study, the Anthropocene began some 4,000 years earlier than previously thought. Archaeological data suggests humans were responsible for significant land-cover changes as early as 2000 B.C.
The Anthropocene is the current geological age. It is described as the period in which human activity has been the dominant influence on Earth's climate and the environment.
Some scientists contend the Anthropocene began during the late 19th or early 20th century, as the industrial revolution transformed the global economy. Others have argued the epoch began when nuclear weapons testing began altering the atmosphere. But the latest research contends the geological age began much earlier.
"The activities of farmers, pastoralists and hunter-gatherers had significantly changed the planet four millennia ago,'' Andrea Kay, an environmental scientist at the University of Queensland in Australia, said in a news release.
For the so-called ArchaeoGLOBE project, Kay and her colleagues compiled regional archaeological data and surveyed archaeologists with regional expertise about land-cover changes across the globe over the last 10,000 years.
The responses for experts helped Kay and her research partners recreate a detailed timeline of humans' influence on global land cover.
"The modern rate and scale of anthropogenic global change is far greater than those of the deep past, but the long-term cumulative changes that early food producers wrought on Earth are greater than many people realize," Kay said. "Even small-scale, shifting agriculture can cause significant change when considered at large scales and over long time-periods."
Previous studies have shown humans have been altering tropical forests for 45,000 years.
Researchers hope that their latest work -- published this week in the journal Science -- will inspire other scientists to utilize the knowledge of archaeologists when tracing the history of human impacts on the earth's environment and atmosphere.
"Archaeologists possess critical data sets for assessing long-term human impacts to the natural world, but these remain largely untapped in terms of global-scale assessments," researcher Nicole Boivin said.