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Humans and Farming: Environment Was Altered Long Before Industrial Revolution

Dec 28, 2015 06:24 PM EST
When humans began farming 6,000 years ago they caused dramatic shifts in species distribution.
(Photo : Flickr: Dennis Jarvis)

Long before urbanization and the Industrial Revolution, humans were leaving their mark on the environment, researchers report in a new study. But for nearly 300 million years, nature remained undisturbed -- then, around 6,000 years ago, humans began farming. The time period that we still occupy -- defined by our human influence on the planet -- is known as the "Anthropocene."

"When early humans started farming and became dominant in the terrestrial landscape, we see this dramatic restructuring of plant and animal communities," Nicholas Gotelli, senior author and biologist from the University of Vermont (UVM), explained in a news release.

"This tells us that humans have been having a massive effect on the environment for a very long time," S. Kathleen Lyons, study leader and a paleobiologist at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, added.

For the current study, a team of researchers funded by the National Science Foundation examined modern plant and animals species and compared them to ancient, fossilized species to evaluate certain patterns throughout history. While some pairs of species did not affect one another, others seemed to be "aggregated," meaning they tend to appear together in nature -- similar to how modern cheetahs and giraffes co-exist and both depend on savannah habitats. Furthermore, some species were "segregated," suggesting these pairs were driven apart by competition or different habitat needs. 

Today, researchers say segregated plant and animal pairs are more common than aggregated ones, but this was not the case prior to the rise of farming. Instead researchers found the opposite pattern: From 307 million years ago to about 6,000 years ago, aggregated species pairs were more common. However, a dramatically new pattern emerged roughly 6,000 years ago, during the great Neolithic revolution when humans developed agriculture and their populations grew and spread globally.

"We think it's something that humans do that causes barriers to dispersal for both plant and animal species," Lyons said in UVM's release

"If human activity has caused the terrestrial landscape to become more island-like, more fragmented, that would be consistent with this pattern of more segregated species pairs," Gotelli added. 

Their study was recently published in the journal Nature

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