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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.
NATURE PLANTS 3, 17093 (2017) | DOI: 10.1038/nplants.2017.93 | 1
By 2050, it is estimated that over half of the world’s population
will live in the tropics, with many people relying on tropical for-
ests as a source of freshwater and agricultural and urban land,
as well as timber, medicine and food1. e expansion of human pop-
ulations into tropical forest environments has seen them become
some of the most threatened ecosystems in the world2,3. Every day,
c.320km2 of tropical rainforest is destroyed, signicantly impact-
ing human populations, along with 135 plant, animal and insect
species4. e ongoing viability of dry tropical forests is also under
ser ious threat5. ese alterations aect ecosystems that are central
to the stability of Earths atmosphere and climate6, as well as key
providers of economic goods and ecosystemservices2.
Focus on recent impacts to tropical forests has tended to promote
these ecosystems as pristine and relatively untouched until recent
centuries or even decades. Nevertheless, cumulative archaeological
interest, spurred on by the application of novel methods of site dis-
covery7, archaeological science research (forexample, refs8–11) and
palaeoenvironmental reconstruction (forexample, refs12 ,13), have
increasingly demonstrated tropical forests to be dynamic ‘artefacts
of millennia of human–forest interaction14,15. Attempts to investigate
the relationship between, on the one hand, prehistoric re regime
alteration, cultivation16, extensive sedentary settlement and endur-
ing landscape modication17,18, and, on the other, sustainable past
subsistence, water-use and intensive human occupation, have so
far been limited. is is despite recent calls from UNESCO19 and
a broad range of researchers20,21 to actively involve archaeologists in
conservation and policy-making in tropicalforests.
Awareness of long-term anthropogenic impacts to tropical for-
ests has only gradually emerged. As recently as the 1980s and1990s,
anthropologists argued that tropical forests were unattractive envi-
ronments for human occupation (forexample, ref. 22). is view
was further promoted by archaeologists, who, for example, saw
tropical forests as barriers to the expansion of Late Pleistocene
Homosapiens foragers23, and also deemed them incapable of sup-
porting agricultural populations24. is bias has been exacerbated by
the generally poor preservation of organic archaeological remains
The deep human prehistory of global tropical
forests and its relevance for modern conservation
Patrick Roberts1*, Chris Hunt2, Manuel Arroyo-Kalin3, Damian Evans4 and Nicole Boivin1
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 con-
serving 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.
in tropical forest environments (forexample, ref.25). Accordingly,
scholarly assumptions about the timing of signicant anthropogenic
impacts on tropical forests generally point to the post-industrial era
or, at the earliest, the colonial era of European ‘discovery’26,27. Cl ea rly,
the accumulating database of archaeological and palaeoecological
evidence for pre-industrial and pre-colonial tropical forest occu-
pation and transformation has not been eectively communicated
beyond a restricted set of sub-disciplines (though see refs28–31).
As a consequence, this evidence has only played a small role in dis-
cussions about the start date or characteristics of the Anthropocene
(forexample, ref.32, but seeref.33).
Here, we review evidence that has accumulated, primarily in
recent decades, for the long-term human transformation of tropical
forest ecosystems. Our review is not exhaustive, but rather seeks to
highlight how recent studies, drawing on a suite of new archaeologi-
cal science and palaeoecological methods, have dramatically altered
understanding of tropical forest prehistories and histories globally.
We focus on three modes of human impact that, over the long-term,
stack up as broad but non-synchronous phases: a phase marked by
deliberate forest burning, species translocation and management of
forest biota; a phase of agricultural cultivation and enduring land-
scape modication; and a phase of urban occupation and trans-
formation of tropical forests. As will be seen, these modes are not
mutually exclusive. We conclude by examining the implications of
new archaeological and palaeoecological perspectives on the long-
term prehistory of tropical forests for contemporary agendas of
conservation, management, and resilience building.
Early impacts
In the last ten years, the archaeologically acknowledged human
inhabitation of tropical forests has quadrupled in age. ere is
now clear evidence for the use of tropical forests by our spe-
cies in Borneo12,13,34 and Melanesia35 by c.45 ka, in SouthAsia by
c.36ka36, and in SouthAmerica by c.13ka37. ere are suggestions
of earlier rainforest occupation c.125 ka in Java38,39, c. 60ka in the
Philippines40, c.100ka in China41, and in Africa, perhaps from the
1Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, 07745 Jena, Germany. 2Liverpool John Moores University, Liverpool L3 3AF, UK. 3University
College London, London WC1H 0PY, UK. 4École française d’Extrême-Orient, 75116 Paris, France. *e-mail:
2 NATURE PLANTS 3, 17093 (2017) | DOI: 10.1038/nplants.2017.93 |
rst appearance of H.sapiens, c.200ka42, though further research
is required to verify these cases43 (note ‘ka’ represents thousands of
calibrated/uncalibrated years ago; where this refers to radiocarbon
dates it is equivalent to calibrated years ). Early modern humans
adapted to diverse tropical forest formations, ranging from the sub-
zero temperatures of montane forests to dense, humid, evergreen
rainforests, undertaking sophisticated forest mammal hunting and
plant processing (forexample, ref.44). Moreover, people did not just
adapt passively to these environments, but from the onset modied
them in fundamental ways10,45, with outcomes that have aected the
natural histories of these forests to the presentday.
In Southeast Asia, mounting evidence points to deliberate anthro-
pogenic biomass burning in order to create forest-edge habitats from
the rst human arrival c.45ka13,35 (Fig.1). is may reect reliance
on starchy forest-edge plants and bearded pigs that were attracted
to canopy openings12. In tropical Australia, the decline of Araucaria
and rise of Eucalypts and Casuarina have been correlated with the
advent of anthropogenic biomass burning aer 40 ka46–48. Human
landscape impacts have also been documented in the montane
tropical forests of the NewGuinea Highlands from 45–35ka, even
retarding vegetation re-colonization in the region following the Last
Glacial Maximum49. at early foragers could have played a signi-
cant role in reshaping newly colonized landscapes is also supported
by evidence that later foragers did. For example, the rst colonists of
the eastern Caribbean in the mid-Holocene brought their foraging,
collecting and hunting lifestyles with them, and engaged in modi-
cation and management of tropical ecosystems that is reected in
signicant shis in pollen and phytolithdatasets50.
Still debated, but potentially even more signicant in terms of
long-term impact, is human involvement in LatePleistocene tropi-
cal forest megafaunal extinctions, which are argued to have had
anthropogenic, climatic or multivariate causes, and to have resulted
in major changes to ecosystem structure47. While discussions of
megafaunal extinctions in tropical forests have been relatively
limited, these environments possessed diverse megafauna, some
of which persists in parts of Africa and Asia51. In the NewGuinea
Highlands there is evidence for megafauna, including extinct
marsupials (such as Maokopia ronaldii and ylogale hopeii), at
WestBalim River c.30ka and at Nombe c.25ka, with their gradual
demise occurring aer human arrival and subsequent biomass burn-
ing49,52. In the Amazon basin, megafaunal extinctions, such as those
of large mastodons (Haplomastodon waringi) and ground sloths
(Eremotheriumlaurillardi), signicantly altered biodiversity, vegeta-
tion distributions, nutrient cycling and carbon storage in the region,
with eects persisting to the present day53, though the role of humans
in this process has yet to be fully explored (forexample,ref.54).
Tropical forest foragers also reshaped landscapes through the
active long-distance translocation of species. In Melanesia, people
translocated small mammals for reliable protein from 20ka55. e
result is that species such as bandicoot (Peramelessp.) and cuscus
(Phalanger sp.) are now widely distributed across Melanesian
islands, including the Bismarck Archipelago, where they are not
endemic. Yams (Dioscorea alata) are present on both sides of
Wallace’s Line by 45 ka34,56. By the terminal Pleistocene or early
Holocene, a web of translocations seems to have carried economi-
cally important plants, including the sago palm (Metroxylonsagu),
yams (D.alata) and Dioscoreahispida, taro (Colocasia esculenta) and
swamp taro (Alocasia longiloba), to the coastlands and islands of
SoutheastAsia, the Philippines and Wallacea, and possibly also into
North Australia57–59 (Fig. 1). Modication of the distribution and
density of edible and economic tree species has also been observed
among Amazonian hunter-gatherers60.
Farming in the forest
e montane rainforests of NewGuinea provide some of the earl-
iest evidence for agricultural experimentation anywhere in the
world8,58. At Kuk Swamp, terminal Pleistocene human foragers
moved and tended tropical plants such as yam (Dioscorea sp.),
banana (Musa spp.) and taro (Colocasia sp.) until these species
were fully ‘domesticated’ by the early–mid Holocene8,61. Both recent
and ancient agricultural practices in this and other tropical forest
regions were, however, combined with hunting/shing and gather-
ing. For example, while there was large-scale land management at
Kuk Swamp, other surrounding sites demonstrate continued evi-
dence for small mammal hunting62,63. Studies of early human activi-
ties in rainforest environments have helped to blur the boundaries
between tropical forest hunter-gatherers and farmers, revealing
sophisticated subsistence practices, such as transplantation and
cultivation extending back to at least the early Holocene. Such stud-
ies highlight how even these small populations may have altered
tropical forest environments(Fig.2).
e eventual domestication of tropical forest plants and ani-
mals, together with the incorporation of plants and animals domes-
ticated outside of tropical forest environments, and the emergence
of agricultural systems, reect new thresholds in the intensifying
relationship between humans and tropical forest environments.
e scale of human selection on tropical forest species can be seen
in the number of them that are central to global cuisine today,
including sweet potato, manioc, chilli, black pepper, mango, yams,
pineapple and banana64 (Fig.3). While domesticated tropical forest
fauna are fewer in number, the now globally distributed domes-
tic chicken also most probably had a tropical forest origin in the
form of the jungle fowl65. Despite new crops, however, increasingly
settled tropical forest communities also continued to practice the
same agroforestry systems developed by their forebearers, with a
focus on the management of various tree species. For example, the
rst Polynesian occupants of the Chatham Islands brought with
them translocated tree crops, which were important to arbori-
culture and agroforestry strategies (with lasting impacts on con-
servation eorts in these islands)66. Likewise, stands of Brazil nut
(Bertholletia excelsa) in the Amazon closely map onto ancient
human settlements67, reecting long-term human interaction with
and management of thisspecies.
In addition to species domestication and translocation, the
development of indigenous tropical forest agricultures during the
Holocene also led to the intensive drainage and modication of
soils. We have already mentioned the distinctive aspects of early
Holocene indigenous agriculture in Melanesia, which involved the
formation of drainage ditches to prevent waterlogging of soils in
planting areas61. In Amazonia, evidence from the LlanosdeMojos68
and Guyanas69 highlights how populations adapted to ooding
conditions in order to intensify agricultural production. In areas
now dominated by tropical rainforest, pre-Columbian settlement
and re-intensive land-use practices resulted in the formation of
expanses of fertile anthropic soils (Fig.2) known as terras pretas
and terras mulatas10,17. ese may have been re-utilized as fer-
tile soilscape legacies by populations in the past, just as they are
employed in thepresent.
Over their human history, tropical forests have also been inu-
enced by expansions of neighbouring farming groups and crops. In
Amazonia, the adoption of Mesoamerican maize (Zeamays) dates
back to at least 6,000years 70, and the plant was an important
part of regional diets by the late Holocene71. In Africa, Bantu agri-
culturalists farming pearl millet and cattle appear to have expanded
into the tropical rainforests of western and central Africa, c.2.5ka,
when their extent was greatly contracted24. is expansion is sug-
gested to have resulted in severe erosion and forest fragmentation
in eastern and central Africa72. Similarly, the arrival of rice and mil-
let agriculture in the tropical forests of Southeast Asia is associ-
ated with large-scale forest clearance, particularly within the more
deciduous forests to the north of the equatorial belt in mainland
SoutheastAsia, which would have been easier toburn73,74.
NATURE PLANTS 3, 17093 (2017) | DOI: 10.1038/nplants.2017.93 | 3
Callao Cave
Ivane Valley
Lake Sentarum
Wallace’s Line
Ille Cave
Wallace’s Line
Nong Thalee
Song Hong
Mt. Kerenici
Rawa Danau
Paoay Lake
Laguna de Bay
Punung Song Gupuh Jerimalai
Liang Burung 2
Site 820
Banda Sea
Strait Ranca
Continental shelf submerged
at high sea
Sites with Holocene
vegetation disturbance
Swamp sago Metroxylon sagu
Taro Colocasia elim. esculenta
Yam Discorea alata
Continental shelf exposed
at low sea
Sites with Pleistocene
vegetation disturbance
Archaeological sites
Yam Discorea alata
Taro Colocasia elim. esculenta
Figure 1 | Tropical Australasian Pleistocene and Holocene sites with evidence for human presence, forest disturbance and plant translocation. Tropical
Australasia showing Pleistocene sites with reasonably certain modern human presence, Pleistocene and Holocene vegetation disturbance by fire atypical of
the longer Pleistocene record, or where humans are directly implicated, and locations with evidence for economically useful plants found both sides of the
biogeographical discontinuity of Wallace’s Line. Top: late Pleistocene; bottom: early Holocene 11,000–5,000 . The figure is compiled based on data from
Barker et al.118, Denham58, Hunt et al.13, Hunt and Premathilake59, Hunt and Rabett119, Marwick et al.120, Mijares et al.40, Moss and Kershaw47, Paz56, Kershaw et al.121,
van der Kaars et al.122, Storm et al.38, Summerhayes et al.35 and Westaway et al.39
4 NATURE PLANTS 3, 17093 (2017) | DOI: 10.1038/nplants.2017.93 |
In the Caribbean archaic and ceramic periods, meanwhile, com-
munities brought a variety of exogenous domesticates, including
wild avocado (Persea americana), manioc (Manihot esculenta),
dog (Canis lupusfamiliaris) and guineapig (Caviaporcellus), into
island tropical forests75. Early Polynesians similarly carried a range
of domesticated crops, animals, and commensals that have con-
tributed to the alteration of tropical forests across the region76,77.
On Tonga, for example, tropical forest tree species declined in
abundance following Polynesian colonization78. Extinctions also
ensued. Estimates suggest that avian extinctions from the tropical
Pacic aer Polynesian colonization and prior to European arrival
numbered in the hundreds, if notthousands79.
Nevertheless, outside of more vulnerable island contexts,
the adaptation of non-endemic domesticates to tropical forest
environments did not generally result in signicant or lasting envi-
ronmental degradation in pre-industrial times. Indeed, most com-
munities entering these habitats were initially at low population
densities and appear to have developed subsistence systems that
were tuned to their particular environments. is stands in stark
contrast to the more recent eects of industrial monoculture and
extensive cattle ranching in tropical forest settings. ese practices,
which induce rampant clearance, reduce biodiversity, provoke soil
erosion and render landscapes more susceptible to the outbreak of
wild res (for example, refs80,81), represent some of the greatest
dangers facing tropical forests. Pre-industrial farming in tropical
forests, which oen employed re in controlled fashion (forexam-
ple, refs17,82), by contrast, relied on an intimate knowledge of for-
est dynamics and successful integration within the whole ecological
Oxisols Terras mulatas Terras pretas
Figure 2 | A model of anthropic impact on tropical forest environments based on Amazonia. a, Pre-human tropical forest with natural gap dynamics,
including megafaunal impacts. b, Nomadic foraging groups utilizing plant (including tree) and animal resources and, where desirable, forming gaps
through forest burning. c, Initial sedentism with house gardens and slight soil modification. d, Increased sedentism and population growth with
corresponding soil modification, swidden plots, slash and burn impacts, and small regrowth of trees on old plots. e, Abandonment leading to forest
regrowth and the legacy of anthropic soils. Note the central role played by aquatic resources and alluvial environments for the selection of appropriate
environments for human inhabitation.
NATURE PLANTS 3, 17093 (2017) | DOI: 10.1038/nplants.2017.93 | 5
system, and largely appears to have encouraged more exible and
resilient farming systems based aroundpolyculture.
Forests of ruins or sustainable urbanism
Public perceptions of archaeology in tropical forests oen revolve
around ‘lost’ temples that are only now being ‘discovered’, with
romantic visions of vanished cities abandoned to the jungle83. In
places such as Cambodia, however, these perceptions are deeply
political and rmly grounded in colonialism84. Evocative images
of the rise, fall, and sudden ‘collapse’ of societies in these environ-
ments also owe much to twentiethcentury archaeological sugges-
tions that large, permanent settlements could not be maintained
due to the low fertility of tropical soils85. Nevertheless, over the last
two decades, archaeological data, including canopy-penetrating
LiDAR (light detection and ranging) mapping, have revealed pre-
viously unimagined scales of human settlement in the Americas
and Southeast Asia7,86. Indeed, extensive settlement networks in
the tropical forests of Amazonia, SoutheastAsia, and Mesoamerica
clearly persisted for much longer than the modern industrial
and urban settlements in these environments have currently
been present18,87.
Several challenges face urban populations in tropical forest envi-
ronments today. For instance, oods and mudslides pose one of the
greatest threats to modern urban settlements in tropical settings88.
In1999, a high-magnitude storm in the Vargas region of northern
Venezuela triggered ash oods and mudslides that killed between
10,000and 15,000people and destroyed c.40,000 homes in one of
the worst natural disasters in the recorded history of the Americas88.
Past urban populations clearly acknowledged such challenges and
worked to mitigate them. Forexample, communities in and around
the great temple-cities of the Angkor period in Cambodia devel-
oped large-scale hydrological infrastructure to both ensure access
to water and divert excess ow away from settlements7(Fig. 4).
Similarly, archaeological evidence from c.1.3 ka in Mesoamerica
and Southeast Asia suggests both wetland modication and raised
elds were deployed to minimize the impact of ooding on settle-
ments89,90. Nevertheless, in some cases, the ongoing danger of this
high-water-ow system could not be contained, with disastrous
consequences. Such impacts have been observed, for example, in
the remains of the settlements of the KhmerEmpire, where hydrau-
lic systems ultimately failed7. e archaeological record oers both
mitigation strategies and cautionarytales.
Water bualo
Early Holocene Mid Holocene Late Holocene
Years 
African rice
Fundi millet
Groundnut oil
11,700–8,200 –4,200 –present
Black pepper
Raishan Pigs
Tar o
Peach palm
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). Temporal periods have been defined on
the basis of Walker et al.123 Temporal and geographical information comes from Pearsall124, Clement et al.125, Piperno126, Denham58, Kingwell-Banham
and Fuller127, Storey et al.128, Fuller and Hildebrand129, Hunt and Rabett119 and Nagarajan et al.130 Image reproduced with permission from Reto Stöckli,
NASA Earth Observatory.
2 km
City grid
Figure 4 | LiDAR-derived bare earth model of urban and hydraulic
infrastructure at a city on Phnom Kulen, ~35km north of Angkor Wat.
Penny et al.131 have demonstrated that the area shown here was subject
to intensive land use for several centuries between the eighth and twelfth
centuries , punctuated by episodes of severe erosion.
6 NATURE PLANTS 3, 17093 (2017) | DOI: 10.1038/nplants.2017.93 |
Another major challenge to sustaining large populations in
tropical forest habitats is the soil erosion that results from forest
clearance and large-scale agricultural systems91,92. In Mesoamerica,
certain Mayan communities appear to have ‘gardened’ the local
forest for their resources rather than practicing forest clearance
and monoculture farming93. is facilitated the long-term sustain-
able support of large populations. Southern Mayan cities, or at
least their ruling elites, perhaps did over-stretch under duress from
climate change, but an overall decrease in population, with per-
haps signicant eects on the erosive potential of the landscape91,
occurred alongside increased resilience and population growth in
the northern Maya region90,94. In Amazonia, dense pre-colonial
populations relied on various combinations of re-intensive cul-
tivation practices, raised agricultural elds, capture and manage-
ment of aquatic riverine resources, and foraging for wild fauna and
plants17,68,95. is agroforestry system helped produce fertile soils
and enhanced long-term forest biodiversity. Deforestation appears
to have been suciently limited that evidence of signicant
human-induced erosion in Amazonia is so farscant.
Many other archaeological and palaeoecological intersections
demonstrate the ne balance between large human populations and
their tropical forest environments. For instance, current evidence
would suggest that a tendency towards sprawling was already pre-
sent in early tropical urbanism96. is is mirrored to a signicant
degree in the modern world and is reected in concerns about the
sustainability of sprawling megacities resulting in continual degra-
dation of environments at the ever-expanding urban fringe97. e
decline of early, low-density megacities with dense urban cores and
massive state-sponsored hydraulic infrastructure oen appears to
have been strongly correlated with climate change98,99. On the other
hand, diversication, decentralization and ‘agrarian urbanism
seem to have contributed to overallresilience100,101.
Implications for the twenty-first century
Although tropical forests were once seen as pristine, they are
increasingly becoming recognized as outcomes of long-standing
human modication, management and transformation. New
methods and emerging datasets are demonstrating unequivo-
cally that their enduring transformation by past human popula-
tions has much greater antiquity than previously thought. Yet
despite the contemporary threat to tropical forests, and the need
for concerted cross-disciplinary eorts to address the challenges
they face, growing archaeological datasets have to date played
only a relatively minor role in shaping contemporary discus-
sions, debate, and policy-making. is is in part a result of limited
archaeological survey and exploration of tropical forests relative to
other environments. It is also due to the fact that few ecologists
and conservationists have engaged with mounting evidence for the
long-term human impact of tropical forest environments (however,
Some important strides have nonetheless been made. Increasing
numbers of world heritage sites are now being accepted from
tropical forest habitats, ranging from early H.sapiens cave sites in
SriLanka103 to large-scale eld systems in Bolivia104. UNESCO19 is
now actively seeking to create joint world heritage sites of natural
and cultural importance in tropical forest regions so that archaeo-
logical sites and their forest contexts are mutually protected within
the framework of the UnitedNations2030 Sustainable Development
Programme105. Ecological restoration projects are also drawing on
archaeological data. In the tropical forests of Hawaii, for example,
wild owering plants identied in archaeobotanical assemblages
have been successfully reintroduced into regions from which they
had been extirpated by the twenty-rst century106.
Ancient tropical forest urban centres are also attracting broader
attention in terms of their potential to shed light on contemporary
challenges. For example, the extensive urban fringes around many
ancient tropical forest urban centres are being drawn upon within
present-day urban planning research (forexample, ref.97). e
role of such peri-urban interfaces in local resilience, in addressing
vulnerability of urban centres to climate change, and in support-
ing current livelihoods and food security are of increasing inter-
est, with archaeological data from tropical regions providing useful
case studies of long-term dynamics97. Also of interest have been
tropical rainforest anthrosols, such as the fertile terrapreta soils
of the pre-Columbian Amazon. Research into these pre-Colum-
bian soil scape legacies has both encouraged the search for pan-
tropical analogues107,108 and inspired attempts to recreate similarly
Tropical forest archaeology is now past its pioneering stage.
Although its development over the past decades has been enabled
by new methods within and beyond the discipline of archaeology,
the role of deforestation in revealing previously hidden ancient
structures underlines the urgency of drawing on the past to inform
present-day policy and planning. is urgency is fully felt by indig-
enous and traditional populations in tropical regions, many of
whose livelihoods and cultural existence are intimately linked to
tropical forest environments. For instance, Mbuti populations in
CentralAfrica have been gradually evicted from the tropical ever-
green rainforests of this region over the last decade or so110, some-
times in the name of nature conservation. is has led not only
to loss of traditional ecological knowledge but also to pervasive
malnutrition and disease among some groups111. In the Brazilian
Amazon, the impact of expanding infrastructure on populations is
severe112 and current debates examine the ethics of contract archae-
ological work in environmental licencing of large-scale infrastruc-
ture projects113. reats to indigenous and traditional populations,
their livelihoods, and their knowledge systems are global in scope
and need to be factored into any attempts to marry archaeological
practice and policy relating to tropicalforests.
Archaeological and palaeoecological data relating to ancient
tropical forest problematizes the notion of any return to pristine
conditions. If past human populations have in many cases altered
tropical forests in ways that have rendered them more useable for
human inhabitation—improving ecosystem services in modern
parlance—then perhaps restoration is a problematic goal, at least if
such practices are aimed at restoring to some ‘original’ condition.
Archaeological research instead promotes recognition and, in some
cases, conservation of ‘novel ecosystems114,115 that have helped to
sustain human populations over the long term. e championing
of novel ecosystems and abandonment of traditional conservation
goals are controversial ideas, but are clearly amongst a number of
key debates that archaeologists might usefully weigh in on as part
of wider, interdisciplinary discussions about tropicalforests.
In conclusion, we suggest that emerging understanding of the
long-term history of tropical forests points to a number of core
recommendations. Foremost amongst these is that indigenous and
traditional peoples—whose ancestors’ systems of production and
knowledge are slowly being decoded by archaeologists—should be
seen as part of the solution and not one of the problems of sus-
tainable tropical forest development. Second, there is a need for
greater dissemination of the ndings of archaeology beyond the
discipline in order to enable broader understanding of long-term
human alteration of tropical forest regions, and informed consid-
eration of its implications. ird, we should continue to advance
along the path of more regular and intensive exchange between
archaeologists, ecologists, anthropologists, biologists and geogra-
phers, engaging beyond academia with international bodies such
as UNESCO and FAO19–21,116,117. To this end, we advocate holding
further regular meetings dedicated to a holistic and pantropical
approach to the study of the archaeology of tropical forest biomes,
as well as undertaking to achieve broader engagement between
archaeologists andstakeholders.
NATURE PLANTS 3, 17093 (2017) | DOI: 10.1038/nplants.2017.93 | 7
Received 24 February 2017; accepted 17 May 2017;
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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 oce in Mexico, for invitations to tropical forest conservation workshops
in Xalapa (2015) and Mexico City (2017). e 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 Figs1,2 and3. D.E.’s contribution,
and N.Hofer’s contribution to the illustrations, were funded by the European Research
Council(ERC) under the European Unions 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 contributions
P.R. conceived of the manuscript, wrote the manuscript and conceived of and produced
Figs2and3. C.H. wrote the manuscript and conceived of and produced Fig.1.
M.A.-K. wrote the manuscript and conceived of and produced Figs2 and3. D.E. wrote
the manuscript and conceived of and produced Figs3 and4. N.B. conceived of the
manuscript, wrote the manuscript and conceived of Figs2 and3.
Additional information
Reprints and permissions information is available at
Corresponde nce should be addressed to P.R.
How to cite this article: Roberts, P., Hunt, C., Arroyo-Kalin, M., Evans, D. & Boivin,N.
e deep human prehistory of global tropical forests and its relevance for modern
conservation. Nat. Plants 3,17093(2017).
Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in
published maps and institutional aliations.
Competing interests
e authors declare no competing nancialinterests.
... Para fines de nuestra exposición voy a enfocarme en los bosques antrópicos "sembrados" a través de la labor agrícola. Como hemos venido señalando, existe evidencia de que los bosques y selvas del mundo no existían "antes que los humanos", sino que han sido habitados y modificados durante milenios (Roberts et al., 2017), e incluso plantados por jardineros agroforestales. Esto ha sido posible por diversos factores, pero ante todo por el conocimiento humano de la sucesión ecológica. ...
... Estas transformaciones hechas gracias a los sistemas agroforestales y silvopastoriles propiciaron una intensa complejidad ambiental. Asimismo, las investigaciones de las dos últimas décadas han logrado penetrar el dosel y revelar escalas de asentamientos humanos impresionantes al interior de los bosques tropicales de la Amazonía, el sudeste asiático y Mesoamérica, en donde poblaciones numerosas vivían sin depredar los territorios habitados (Roberts et al., 2017). Por supuesto, como mencionamos, no podemos caer en la narrativa roussoniana del buen salvaje verde. ...
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Multitudes agroecológicas busca nutrir la imaginación política y la creatividad sociológica a fin de seguir pensando el difícil pero urgente proyecto de abrir las condiciones para las transiciones civilizatorias y las transformaciones poscapitalistas, en un contexto de inminente colapso del sistema hegemónicamente instituido. La obra muestra de qué manera una multitud de procesos agroecológicos hacen surgir lo inédito y de ese modo hilvanan la emancipación, en un escenario en el que parece imposible hacerlo. Millones de personas organizadas alrededor del mundo, en el campo y la ciudad, están, de manera intuitiva y creativa, desmontando paulatinamente el sistema que nos oprime, mientras traen al mundo de la vida muchos otros sistemas sustitutivos. Esas experiencias están dando las nuevas pistas de la revolución, y enseñando que es posible un cambio cualitativo en el que los antiguos fines de crecimiento, urbanización, modernización, industrialización, se reemplacen por otros distintos, como la compatibilización con los ciclos de la vida, la creación de lo común, la autonomía territorial, la relocalización, la artesanalización y el florecimiento de la potencia de los pueblos.
... While the Americas have a high coverage of wildlands, due in part to depopulation following European arrival in 1492, the richness of these forests has also been shaped by pre-colonial forest use. 3,14 For example, the hyper-diverse Ecuadorian Andean cloud forests were once open fields cultivated by the Indigenous Quijos population. 15 Indigenous communities can enhance forest integrity through management practices that benefit biodiversity, 16 such as the planting of useful fruit and timber trees and abandonment of plots, which result in complex forest structures. ...
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Intact tropical forests have a high conservation value.¹ Although perceived as wild,² they have been under long-term human influence.³ As global area-based conservation targets increase, the ecological contributions of Indigenous peoples through their governance institutions and practices⁴ are gaining mainstream interest. Indigenous lands—covering a quarter of Earth’s surface⁵ and overlapping with a third of intact forests⁶—often have reduced deforestation, degradation, and carbon emissions, compared with non-protected areas and protected areas.⁷,⁸ A key question with implications for the design of more equitable and effective conservation policies is to understand the impacts of Indigenous lands on forest integrity and long-term use, as critical measures of ecosystem health included within the post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework.⁹ Using the forest landscape integrity index¹⁰ and Anthromes¹¹ datasets, we find that high-integrity forests tend to be located within the overlap of protected areas and Indigenous lands (protected-Indigenous areas). After accounting for location biases through statistical matching and regression, protected-Indigenous areas had the highest protective effect on forest integrity and the lowest land-use intensity relative to Indigenous lands, protected areas, and non-protected controls pan-tropically. The protective effect of Indigenous lands on forest integrity was lower in Indigenous lands than in protected areas and non-protected areas in the Americas and Asia. The combined positive effects of state legislation and Indigenous presence in protected-Indigenous areas may contribute to maintaining tropical forest integrity. Understanding management and governance in protected-Indigenous areas can help states to appropriately support community-governed lands.
... Historical legacies of former human activities are common in forests throughout the world, e.g., [1][2][3][4]. In addition to material remains of these activities, associated with for example settlements, e.g., [5][6][7][8], these legacies may be manifested biologically. ...
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Many forests throughout the world contain legacies of former human impacts and management. This study reviews evidence of floristic legacies in the understory of Swedish boreo-nemoral forests, and presents a case study on two currently declining forest plants, suggested to have been favored by historical use of forests. The review provides evidence of forest remnant populations of 34 grassland species. Thus, many floristic legacies have their main occurrence in semi-natural grasslands, but maintain remnant populations in forests, in some cases more than 100 years after grazing and mowing management have ceased. Despite less information on true forest understory plants appearing as legacies of historical human use of boreo-nemoral forests, a putative guild of such species is suggested. The case study on two species, Chimaphila umbellata and Moneses uniflora (Pyroleae, Ericaceae) suggests that both species are currently declining, mainly due to modern forestry and ceased livestock grazing in forests. Chimaphila maintains remnant populations during decades, due to its extensive clonal capacity and its long-lived ramets. Moneses is more sensitive, due to a lower stature, weaker clonal capacity and short-lived ramets, flowering only once during their lifetime. Thus, Moneses have more transient occurrences, and will decline rapidly under deteriorating conditions.
... Recent archaeobotanical research has transformed our understandings of ancient tropical subsistence systems and the varied global trajectories towards agriculture in tropical environments (Castillo et al., 2018;Crowther et al., 2016;Levis et al., 2018;Shaw et al., 2020). Suggestions that tropical rainforest provided an unviable long-term subsistence base for foragers have been proved incorrect on several continents (Roberts et al., 2017), with research in Southeast Asia and Sahul demonstrating unequivocally that early humans adopted complex plant and animal-based subsistence strategies in lowland and upland tropical environments before 40,000 years ago (e.g., Barker et al., 2007;Florin et al., 2020;Summerhayes et al., 2010;Veth et al., 2017). A key component of these early, and indeed later, economies across the Asia-Pacific region appears to be tree nuts and fruits, and a reliance on the fats, proteins and carbohydrates they provide. ...
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The fats, protein and carbohydrates afforded by tree nuts and fruits are key resources for communities from Southeast Asia, through Melanesia, Australia and across Oceania. They are important in long-distance marine trade networks, large-scale ceremonial gatherings, and are core resources in a wide range of subsistence economies, including foraging systems, horticulture and swidden agriculture. Recent archaeobotanical evidence has also shown their deep-time importance, being amongst the earliest foods used in the colonisation of novel environments in Australia and New Guinea, as well as the later colonisation of Near and Remote Oceania. The archaeobotanical methods used to identify fruit and nut-derived plant macrofossils have been largely limited to use of morphological characters of near whole or exceptionally preserved remains, most commonly endocarps, the hard, nutshell-like interior layer of the fruit protecting the seed. Here we detail how anatomical characteristics of endocarps, visible in light and scanning electron microscopy (SEM), can be used with surviving morphological features to identify confidently the use of key Asia-Pacific economic trees, in this case, Canarium, Pandanus and Terminalia. Systematic anatomical description allows the identification of these important economic taxa, and separation from the remains of others such as Aleurites and Cocos, when found in a range of archaeological assemblages. This includes the often highly fragmented charred assemblages that can be recovered routinely from most sites with appropriate fine-sieving and flotation methods. These methods provide the basis for a more representative and nuanced understanding of ancient plant use, economy and social systems operating in the region and, being particularly useful in tropical regions, will broaden the archaeobotanical database on ancient foods globally.
... First, archaeologists were interested in the role of humans as agents of change in opposition to social structure (Dobres and Robb 2000). For instance, people were no longer considered passive beings adapting to predetermined environmental conditions; it was acknowledged that environments were in constant transformation and that people were active agents on it (Blume and Leinweber 2004;Crumley 2017;Hayashida 2005;Roberts et al. 2017). People have contributed to species extinction, transformed species (domestication), and modified environs (niche construction) to fit to their own needs. ...
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Global Perspectives on Landscapes of Warfare examines the effects of conflict on landscapes and the ways landscapes have shaped social and political boundaries over time. Contributors from different archaeological traditions introduce a variety of methodologies and theories to understand and explain how territories and geographies in antiquity were modified in response to threat. Drawing from eleven case studies from periods ranging over eight thousand years in the Americas, Asia, and Europe, contributors consider how social groups moved and concentrated residences, built infrastructure, invested resources, created alliances and negotiated with human and nonhuman entities for aid, formed and reformed borders, and memorialized sites and territories. Because landscapes of warfare deal with built environments, chapters are presented with rich graphic documentation—detailed maps, site plans, and artifacts—to support the analysis and interpretations. Territories that have been appropriated and transformed by communities at war illustrate how built landscapes not only reflect immediate events but also influence subsequent generations. With a diverse array of case studies and an explicit focus on landscapes, Global Perspectives on Landscapes of Warfare will be of great interest to students and scholars of conflict archaeology and the anthropology and history of violence across the globe.
... The first hurdle is to demonstrate the potential of longue durée perspectives for sustainability science. This potential has been recognized by a number of researchers throughout the last decade or more, who have suggested that an understanding of human-environment interactions in the past can be of value for understanding such interactions in the contemporary or future world (e.g., [8,10,13,[18][19][20][21][22][23]). Research has confirmed that the past provides a unique repository of examples and case studies for assessing the responses of individual societies to changing climates and environments, which may have important parallels with, and thus offer useful analogies to, present-day communities (e.g., [10,[24][25][26]). ...
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Human beings are an active component of every terrestrial ecosystem on Earth. Although our local impact on the evolution of these ecosystems has been undeniable and extensively documented, it remains unclear precisely how our activities are altering them, in part because ecosystems are dynamic systems structured by complex, non-linear feedback processes and cascading effects. We argue that it is only by studying human–environment interactions over timescales that greatly exceed the lifespan of any individual human (i.e., the deep past or longue durée), we can hope to fully understand such processes and their implications. In this article, we identify some of the key challenges faced in integrating long-term datasets with those of other areas of sustainability science, and suggest some useful ways forward. Specifically, we (a) highlight the potential of the historical sciences for sustainability science, (b) stress the need to integrate theoretical frameworks wherein humans are seen as inherently entangled with the environment, and (c) propose formal computational modelling as the ideal platform to overcome the challenges of transdisciplinary work across large, and multiple, geographical and temporal scales. Our goal is to provide a manifesto for an integrated scientific approach to the study of socio-ecological systems over the long term.
Increasing concerns regarding the status of the environment and food quality contribute to an increasing demand for agricultural products produced by organic agriculture (OA). About 1.6% of the global agricultural land area is currently managed by OA practices. In the twentieth century, pioneers such as Rudolf Steiner, Sir Albert Howard, Lady Eve Balfour, Jerome Irving Rodale and Masanobu Fukuoka developed OA systems in reaction to perceived failures of conventional or nonorganic agriculture. Early types of OA included bio-dynamic, natural, biological, ecological and organic-biological agriculture. The International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) provides a definition of modern OA. However, there is no single interpretation of what OA practices and principles entail, and OA production systems continue to evolve. Among common OA practices are fertilization with organic instead of mineral fertilizers, use of natural-derived instead of synthetic plant protection products, and mechanical instead of chemical crop system management. Importantly, OA is the only farming system whose management practices are codified by law in most countries. However, OA is faced with several challenges such as the 19–25% lower crop yield compared to that under conventional or nonorganic practices, the lack of animal and green manure produced on OA farms to satisfy the demand at other OA farms, and lack of plant and animal varieties specifically adapted to OA soil and land-use management practices. Increased efforts are, thus, needed to improve the contribution of OA systems to environmental health as consumer demand for OA products continues to rise globally.
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This paper is a cross-comparative examination of how tropical forested islands were populated by humans. It first describes the unique ecological conditions of these environments, how they fluctuated during glacial cycles, and the challenges and affordances they provided people. The paper then explores the global archaeological record, classifying modes of colonisation that led insular tropical forests to be populated. These modes include terrestrial colo-nisation followed by insularisation (Mode A), maritime colonisation followed by major landmass reconfiguration (Mode B), maritime colonisation of uninhab-ited islands that always remained insular (Mode C), and maritime colonisation of already inhabited islands (Mode D). Finally, the paper discusses how, amongst Homo sapiens, ongoing dynamism between human adaptive behaviours and environmental flux stimulated processes of diversification, speciali-sation, and connectivity in these crucial ecologies; by contrast, archaic hominins like Homo erectus, Homo floresiensis, and Homo luzonensis may have found changes associated with forest expansion and insularity extremely challenging.
Since the dawn of Ayurveda, the Indian healthcare system has been closely intertwined with plant-based medicines. Diverse Indian tribes and ethnic groups have knowledge of medicinal plants that yield pharmaceutically important biomolecules. Ethnobotanical study begins with understanding of the complex interaction patterns of both the biotic and abiotic factors of a habitat and moves on to Ethnopharmacology, the study of indigenous medicinal systems and aligning them with anthropological activities. Ethnobotanical studies focus on plant resource utilization for food, medicines, art, construction, music, aesthetics, rituals, etc. and play a pivotal role in Bio-prospecting of novel compounds, potent biomarkers, new crop foods, timber and non-timber product utilization, etc.Thus, the scientific management of the Ethnobotanical database becomes a primary goal in amalgamating traditional and ethnobotanical medicinal knowledge with main stream medicine. This review discusses key points regarding the interrelationship between the biotic and abiotic factors with reference to medicinal plants and their management. Further, it also discusses the complex role of traditions, beliefs, and cohesive existence of stakeholders in plant conservation leading to the preservation of traditional and ethnic knowledge.The article discourses a five-year database (2015–2020), compiling published literature about important ethnobotanical medicinal plants, listing of new plant species and plants utilized for ethnobotanical purpose with their conservation status and strategies. Based on the compilation, possible strategies and road map for effective conservation has been suggested. As an end-note, opportunities are mentioned that could serve governmental and non-governmental organizations to develop sustainable conservation practices for ethnobotanically important medicinal plants.KeywordsEthnopharmacologyBioprospectingBiomarkersConservationSacred groves
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The extent to which pre-Columbian societies altered Amazonian landscapes is hotly debated. We performed a basin-wide analysis of pre-Columbian impacts on Amazonian forests by overlaying known archaeological sites in Amazonia with the distributions and abundances of 85 woody species domesticated by pre-Columbian peoples. Domesticated species are five times more likely than nondomesticated species to be hyperdominant. Across the basin, the relative abundance and richness of domesticated species increase in forests on and around archaeological sites. In southwestern and eastern Amazonia, distance to archaeological sites strongly influences the relative abundance and richness of domesticated species. Our analyses indicate that modern tree communities in Amazonia are structured to an important extent by a long history of plant domestication by Amazonian peoples.
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Past human influences on Amazonian forest The marks of prehistoric human societies on tropical forests can still be detected today. Levis et al. performed a basin-wide comparison of plant distributions, archaeological sites, and environmental data. Plants domesticated by pre-Columbian peoples are much more likely to be dominant in Amazonian forests than other species. Furthermore, forests close to archaeological sites often have a higher abundance and richness of domesticated species. Thus, modern-day Amazonian tree communities across the basin remain largely structured by historical human use. Science , this issue p. 925
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Seasonally dry tropical forests are distributed across Latin America and the Caribbean and are highly threatened, with less than 10% of their original extent remaining in many countries. Using 835 inventories covering 4660 species of woody plants, we show marked floristic turnover among inventories and regions, whichmay be higher than in other neotropical biomes, such as savanna. Such high floristic turnover indicates that numerous conservation areas across many countries will be needed to protect the full diversity of tropical dry forests. Our results provide a scientific framework within which national decision-makers can contextualize the floristic significance of their dry forest at a regional and continental scale.
"Chantier qualité spécifique "Auteurs Externes" département de Génétique animale : uniquement liaison auteur au référentiel HR-Access "
The nature of subsistence strategies employed by the past inhabitants of Amazonia has been a widely debated topic, however little evidence has been found so far in order to support some of the proposed hypotheses. This article contributes to this debate by presenting new δ¹³C and δ¹⁵N data from the human populations that occupied the Maracá region of the mouth of the Amazon river, around 500 BP (years before present). It directly compares these newly generated results to previously published human isotope data from neighbouring Marajó Island (Marajoara phase, 1600 to 700 BP), as well as other areas in the lowland Neotropics, in an attempt to build a bigger picture of the dietary habits of the Lower Amazon pre-colonial populations. The overall results suggest that the populations that occupied the mouth of the Amazon after 2000 BP had diets based on the exploitation of fish and a wide range of C3 plant resources, as well as possibly having a minor C4 or CAM component. The data presented are also consistent with an emerging consensus that there was no single adaptive pattern for ancient Amazonian populations and proposes that diversified economic strategies based on wild and cultivated plants combined with the exploitation of faunal resources could have developed over time and sustained long-term successful patterns of human occupations.
The long-term interaction between human activity and climate is subject to increasing scrutiny. Humans homogenize landscapes through deforestation, agriculture, and burning and thereby might reduce the capacity of landscapes to provide archives of climate change. Alternatively, land-use change might overwhelm natural buffering and amplify latent climate signals, rendering them detectable. Here we examine a sub-annually resolved sedimentary record from Lake Sauce in the western Amazonian lowlands that spans 6900 years. Finely-laminated sediments were deposited from ca. 5000 years ago until the present, and human activity in the watershed was revealed through the presence of charcoal and maize agriculture. The laminations, analyzed for color content and bandwidth, showed distinctive changes that were coupled to more frequent occurrence of fossil maize pollen. As agricultural activity intensified ca. 2200 cal. BP, the 2- to 8-year periodicity characteristic of El Niño-Southern Oscillation became evident in the record. These agricultural activities appeared to have amplified an existing, but subtle climatic signal that was previously absorbed by natural vegetation. When agricultural activity slowed, or land use around Lake Sauce changed at ca. 800 cal. BP, the signal of El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) activity became erratic.
The terminal Pleistocene/Holocene boundary (approximately 12–8 thousand years ago) represented a major ecological threshold for humans, both as a significant climate transition and due to the emergence of agriculture around this time. In the highlands of New Guinea, climatic and environmental changes across this period have been highlighted as potential drivers of one of the earliest domestication processes in the world. We present a terminal Pleistocene/Holocene palaeoenvironmental record (12–0 thousand years ago ) of carbon and oxygen isotopes in small mammal tooth enamel from the site of Kiowa. The results show that tropical highland forest and open mosaics, and the human subsistence focused on these environments, remained stable throughout the period in which agriculture emerged at nearby Kuk Swamp. This suggests the persistence of tropical forest foraging among highland New Guinea groups and highlights that agriculture in the region was not adopted as a unilinear or dramatic, forced event but was locally and historically contingent.
Significance The Amazon harbors thousands of species and plays a vital role in the Earth’s climate and carbon cycles. Much of what we know about the Amazon is based on censuses of only a small number of forest inventory plots, an even smaller number of which are censused repeatedly and used to study forest dynamics and carbon fluxes. The effects of ancient human impacts have never been properly assessed or accounted for in studies of Amazonian plots. New spatial analyses show that plots significantly oversample areas with high abundances of archaeological evidence of past human activities. This suggests that our interpretations of the Amazon’s structure, composition, and function are based disproportionately on forests still reflecting the legacies of past human disturbances.
Tropical forests constitute some of the most diverse and complex terrestrial ecosystems on the planet. From the Miocene onward, they have acted as a backdrop to the ongoing evolution of our closest living relatives, the great apes, and provided the cradle for the emergence of early hominins, who retained arboreal physiological adaptations at least into the Late Pliocene. There also now exists growing evidence, from the Late Pleistocene onward, for tool assisted intensification of tropical forest occupation and resource extraction by our own species, Homo sapiens. However, between the Late Pliocene and Late Pleistocene there is an apparent gap in clear and convincing evidence for the use of tropical forests by hominins, including early members of our own genus. In discussions of Late Pliocene and Early Pleistocene hominin evolution, including the emergence and later expansion of Homo species across the globe, tropical forest adaptations tend to be eclipsed by open, savanna environments. Thus far, it is not clear whether this Early-Middle Pleistocene lacuna in Homo-rainforest interaction is real and representative of an adaptive shift with the emergence of our species or if it is simply reflective of preservation bias.