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


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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Figure 1: Tropical Australasian Pleistocene and Holocene sites with evidence for human presence, forest disturbance and plant translocation.
Figure 2: A model of anthropic impact on tropical forest environments based on Amazonia.
Figure 3: Map of the temporal and geographical origins of selected domesticated plant and animal resources coming from tropical forest regions during the early (11,000–8,200 ka), middle (8,200–4,200 ka) and late Holocene (4,200 ka onwards).
Figure 4: LiDAR-derived bare earth model of urban and hydraulic infrastructure at a city on Phnom Kulen, 35 km north of Angkor Wat.


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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.

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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.

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Correspondence to Patrick Roberts.

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Roberts, P., Hunt, C., Arroyo-Kalin, M. et al. The deep human prehistory of global tropical forests and its relevance for modern conservation. Nature Plants 3, 17093 (2017).

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