Review Article

The deep human prehistory of global tropical forests and its relevance for modern conservation

  • Nature Plants 3, Article number: 17093 (2017)
  • doi:10.1038/nplants.2017.93
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Abstract

Significant human impacts on tropical forests have been considered the preserve of recent societies, linked to large-scale deforestation, extensive and intensive agriculture, resource mining, livestock grazing and urban settlement. Cumulative archaeological evidence now demonstrates, however, that Homo sapiens has actively manipulated tropical forest ecologies for at least 45,000 years. It is clear that these millennia of impacts need to be taken into account when studying and conserving tropical forest ecosystems today. Nevertheless, archaeology has so far provided only limited practical insight into contemporary human–tropical forest interactions. Here, we review significant archaeological evidence for the impacts of past hunter-gatherers, agriculturalists and urban settlements on global tropical forests. We compare the challenges faced, as well as the solutions adopted, by these groups with those confronting present-day societies, which also rely on tropical forests for a variety of ecosystem services. We emphasize archaeology's importance not only in promoting natural and cultural heritage in tropical forests, but also in taking an active role to inform modern conservation and policy-making.

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Acknowledgements

We would like to thank the participants of the Pantropica 2016 workshop, funded and hosted by the Department of Archaeology at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Jena, for taking part in an international meeting devoted to the global archaeology of rainforest environments. We would also like to thank N. Sanz, and the UNESCO office in Mexico, for invitations to tropical forest conservation workshops in Xalapa (2015) and Mexico City (2017). The discussions that took place during these three workshops informed and shaped the early stages of this manuscript. We would also like to extend our thanks to N. Hofer for her help with Fig. 1, Fig. 2 and Fig. 3. D.E.'s contribution, and N. Hofer's contribution to the illustrations, were funded by the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No 639828) in partnership with the APSARA National Authority and the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, Cambodia. We also thank the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Jena for the ongoing funding of P.R. and N.B.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, 07745 Jena, Germany.

    • Patrick Roberts
    •  & Nicole Boivin
  2. Liverpool John Moores University, Liverpool L3 3AF, UK.

    • Chris Hunt
  3. University College London, London WC1H 0PY, UK.

    • Manuel Arroyo-Kalin
  4. École française d’Extrême-Orient, 75116 Paris, France.

    • Damian Evans

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Contributions

P.R. conceived of the manuscript, wrote the manuscript and conceived of and produced Fig. 2 and Fig. 3. C.H. wrote the manuscript and conceived of and produced Fig. 1. M.A.-K. wrote the manuscript and conceived of and produced Fig. 2 and Fig. 3. D.E. wrote the manuscript and conceived of and produced Fig. 3 and Fig. 4. N.B. conceived of the manuscript, wrote the manuscript and conceived of Fig. 2 and Fig. 3.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Patrick Roberts.