Anthropogenic modification of vegetated landscapes in southern China from 6,000 years ago

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Vegetation dynamics during previous warm interglacial periods shed light on the human impacts on natural ecosystems during the Holocene. However, reliable terrestrial records that span such periods are rare and provide little information on regional scale. Here we present a high-resolution marine pollen record from the northern South China Sea, which reveals that during five peak interglacial periods, Marine Isotope Stages 13a, 11c, 9c, 5e and 1 (the Holocene), the vegetation successions in southern China were similar. At the beginning of each interglacial period, tropical rainforest conifers, which include Dacrydium, Dacrycarpus and Podocarpus, and associated broadleaved taxa, such as Altingia, expanded quickly at the expense of the subtropical/temperate montane conifer Pinus. Near the end of the warm periods, Pinus recovered and the tropical taxa retreated. However, the Holocene displays subtle but significant differences in which the species turnover was interrupted and the rainforest conifers did not fully expanded. The Mg/Ca-based sea surface temperature record from the same site reveals that temperature was the major control of the rise and fall of the peak interglacial vegetation. However, exceptionally high charcoal fluxes during the Holocene suggest that human activities through land-use modifications completely, and possibly permanently, altered the natural vegetation trend five to six thousand years ago.

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Fig. 1: Location of the study site GeoB16602 (star) plotted on a topographic map.
Fig. 2: Time series of vegetation and climate records during peak interglacials (light green bars).
Fig. 3: Abundance variations of the key plant taxa/group for peak interglacials.
Fig. 4: Holocene charcoal anomaly and dynamics of key pollen taxa.

Data availability

The data that support the findings of this study are available from the corresponding author upon reasonable request.


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We thank H. W. Dang, H. M. Ge, J. W. Wu, J. J. Liu and Y. R. Chen for their kind help in the laboratory work. This work was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC, Grants 91128211, 91028010, 41877429, 40771072 and 41023004) and the German Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF, Grants INVERS 03G0221A and CARIMA 03G0806B).

Author information

C.W., M.M. and S.S. designed the research. S.S. and M.M. measured the isotope and Mg/Ca ratios of the foraminifera and constructed the age model. Z.C. generated and analysed the pollen data. Z.C., C.W. and S.S. wrote the manuscript. M.M. reviewed the manuscript.

Correspondence to Chengyu Weng.

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Supplementary Description, Supplementary Figures 1–5 and Supplementary Tables 1 and 2.

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Cheng, Z., Weng, C., Steinke, S. et al. Anthropogenic modification of vegetated landscapes in southern China from 6,000 years ago. Nature Geosci 11, 939–943 (2018) doi:10.1038/s41561-018-0250-1

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