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The Deep Past of Anthropogenic Landscape Transformations

People from all over the world pay a lot of attention to environmental problems and to possible ways in which we can save the planet. This battle between our bright future and lost hopes still requires the historical perspective on the roots of human-environment relations and people’s role in environmental changes.

Generally, it is widely accepted that the emergence of agriculture increased human impact on the landscape, compared to that of foraging societies. But if we talk about the most ancient forms of human impact on landscapes, we should focus on hunter-gatherer societies. What was the intensity and forms of their modifications? Which evidence should we use to identify them? Which types of data are available for us now? How should we organize our future studies? All these questions are still under debate…

The virtual meeting of the European Society for the study of Human Evolution (ESHE) was organized on September 24 – 25. This Society promotes the broad field of research and stimulate communication and scientific cooperation between scientists and general public (learn more about the ESHE). The results of my first year of a PhD research (ESR 3) about the most ancient forms of human impact on European landscapes were presented in this conference, and in the video below. 

Do hunter-gatherers modify landscapes?

Ethnographic records from almost all continents (excluding Antarctica) tell us that sub-recent foragers can modify their surroundings. There are three main ways to do so: vegetation burning, plant manipulation and changing/concentrating animal distribution.

Anthropogenic burning of relatively wide areas is the most common way, and it has been documented in all vegetation types except tundra. Besides, hunter-gatherers can practice small scale plant cultivation and other plant manipulation activities such as digging, gathering and transplantation. Finally, these societies can impact animal presence in several ways: usage of specific objects (fishing traps or fences to control movements of animals) or burning as a management tool of animal distribution. 

What evidence indicates hunter-gatherer induced landscape changes in the past?

There is still no direct answer which proxies are better for studies about past hunter-gatherer landscape changes and which are better not to use. Proxies are an issue by themselves because they have variable limitations starting from temporal availability to difficulties which appear during extraction and laboratory analysis of samples. 

What about future research?

As you can see, there are more questions than answers in studies about the deep past on the deep past of anthropogenic landscape modifications. Because of that, there is a chance for our research group to try to find some answers at least and to clarify existing issues.

Further studies of archaeological sites should more often include extraction of proxies reflecting hunter-gatherer landscape changes. Evidence which are not currently common should be also extracted and analyzed. Besides, modelling can be a tool which will help to summarize existing evidence and identify patterns of hunter-gatherer landscape changes. 

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