The Human Footprint Over the Millennia

Turns out we’ve been making a noticeable impact on our environment for thousands of years.

New Scientist has a nice little article about Humans’ indelible stamp on Earth, in which it is revealed that our clear impact on the environment goes back far later than the one hundred or so years we imagine.

Some nice quotes from the article:

Even though there were only a few tens of millions of us back then, nature was on the back foot because individuals needed far more land to sustain themselves than we do today, says Ellis. Thanks to more intensive farming methods, per-capita land use in western Europe now is only around a sixth what it was 2500 years ago, while in south-east Asia it is less than a tenth.

“We often assume that early agriculturalists couldn’t alter the landscape much because they lacked the technology,” says co-author Steve Vavrus of the University of Wisconsin in Madison. “But their impact was great because they didn’t need to be as efficient as modern farmers.”

Our forests may not be so unspoilt after all.

This picture of early human domination of much of the planet calls into question some common environmental assumptions, says co-author Dorian Fuller of University College London. It suggests, for example, that there is little truly pristine nature anywhere. Most apparently virgin rainforests are far from virgin; many are recovering from past clearance. This may disappoint some nature lovers, but “it shows nature is resilient”, says Kaplan. Nature adapts to our activities better than we often think.

However, the new study does not give us grounds for rejecting environmental concerns, he says. Our current problems – especially what may be runaway climate change caused by burning fossil fuels – are real. At least the study’s findings do offer important lessons for fixing those problems.

The rise of the TV Chef

“They also learned how to grind, boil, ferment and roast food, which allowed them to eat a much greater variety of food, and to develop early techniques of farming, such as seed propagation.”

I have often wondered why we put so much effort into cooking. Of course food is wonderful; It’s a very sensuous experience. You could even say eating is better than sex, not least because, unlike sex (for most of us),  you get to eat every day, but we spend hours and hours preparing food only to see it consumed in a very delightful ten to fifteen minutes.

This article made me think about the origins of cooking, if only very briefly, and it seems that, to start with, we learned to cook so that we could partake of a wider variety of food.

I remember bushwalking/hiking in my younger days and trying to learn about some of the local native foods. One which I found intriguing was the fruit of the Burrawang (Macrozamia), an ancient fern found in the bush/forests where I did much of my exploring.

It produces large clusters of seeds coated with thick skins of bright orange fruity flesh.

These fruits look delicious, but, it turns out they are poisonous – unless that is, you soak the seeds in a running stream for up to three weeks before cooking and eating them. For details read more here.

How on earth did Aboriginals discover just how long  they had to soak these seeds? I assume it was by trial and error. Once they got to a point where people no longer became sick or died, they knew they were onto a winner.

Anyhow, whatever the method they used to discover how to eat these seeds, it seems that they learned to trigger their seeding by using fire.

“Doing this with the correct timing resulted in huge crops that could sustain social gatherings of hundreds of people for many weeks.” (from

Fascinating stuff.


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