NATURE PLANTS 3, 17093 (2017) | DOI: 10.1038/nplants.2017.93 | www.nature.com/natureplants 1
PUBLISHED: 3 AUGUST 2017 | VOLUME: 3 | ARTICLE NUMBER: 17093
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.320km2 of tropical rainforest is destroyed, signicantly 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 aect ecosystems that are central
to the stability of Earth’s atmosphere and climate6, as well as key
providers of economic goods and ecosystemservices2.
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 (forexample, refs8–11) and
palaeoenvironmental reconstruction (forexample, refs12 ,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 modication17,18, 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 tropicalforests.
Awareness of long-term anthropogenic impacts to tropical for-
ests has only gradually emerged. As recently as the 1980s and1990s,
anthropologists argued that tropical forests were unattractive envi-
ronments for human occupation (forexample, ref. 22). is view
was further promoted by archaeologists, who, for example, saw
tropical forests as barriers to the expansion of Late Pleistocene
Homosapiens 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 45,000years. 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 (forexample, ref.25). Accordingly,
scholarly assumptions about the timing of signicant 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 eectively communicated
beyond a restricted set of sub-disciplines (though see refs28–31).
As a consequence, this evidence has only played a small role in dis-
cussions about the start date or characteristics of the Anthropocene
(forexample, ref.32, but seeref.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 modication; 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.
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 SouthAsia by
c.36ka36, and in SouthAmerica by c.13ka37. ere are suggestions
of earlier rainforest occupation c.125 ka in Java38,39, c. 60ka in the
Philippines40, c.100ka 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: firstname.lastname@example.org
2 NATURE PLANTS 3, 17093 (2017) | DOI: 10.1038/nplants.2017.93 | www.nature.com/natureplants
REVIEW ARTICLE NATURE PLANTS
rst appearance of H.sapiens, c.200ka42, 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 (forexample, ref.44). Moreover, people did not just
adapt passively to these environments, but from the onset modied
them in fundamental ways10,45, with outcomes that have aected the
natural histories of these forests to the presentday.
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.45ka13,35 (Fig.1). is may reect 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 aer 40 ka46–48. Human
landscape impacts have also been documented in the montane
tropical forests of the NewGuinea Highlands from 45–35ka, 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 reected in
signicant shis in pollen and phytolithdatasets50.
Still debated, but potentially even more signicant in terms of
long-term impact, is human involvement in LatePleistocene 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 NewGuinea
Highlands there is evidence for megafauna, including extinct
marsupials (such as Maokopia ronaldii and ylogale hopeii), at
WestBalim River c.30ka and at Nombe c.25ka, with their gradual
demise occurring aer 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
(Eremotheriumlaurillardi), signicantly altered biodiversity, vegeta-
tion distributions, nutrient cycling and carbon storage in the region,
with eects persisting to the present day53, though the role of humans
in this process has yet to be fully explored (forexample,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 20ka55. e
result is that species such as bandicoot (Peramelessp.) 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 (Metroxylonsagu),
yams (D.alata) and Dioscoreahispida, taro (Colocasia esculenta) and
swamp taro (Alocasia longiloba), to the coastlands and islands of
SoutheastAsia, the Philippines and Wallacea, and possibly also into
North Australia57–59 (Fig. 1). Modication 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 NewGuinea 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, reect 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 eorts in these islands)66. Likewise, stands of Brazil nut
(Bertholletia excelsa) in the Amazon closely map onto ancient
human settlements67, reecting long-term human interaction with
and management of thisspecies.
In addition to species domestication and translocation, the
development of indigenous tropical forest agricultures during the
Holocene also led to the intensive drainage and modication 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 LlanosdeMojos68
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 thepresent.
Over their human history, tropical forests have also been inu-
enced by expansions of neighbouring farming groups and crops. In
Amazonia, the adoption of Mesoamerican maize (Zeamays) dates
back to at least 6,000years 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.2.5ka,
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
SoutheastAsia, which would have been easier toburn73,74.
NATURE PLANTS 3, 17093 (2017) | DOI: 10.1038/nplants.2017.93 | www.nature.com/natureplants 3
SOUTH CHINA SEA
SOUTH CHINA SEA
Laguna de Bay
Punung Song Gupuh Jerimalai
Liang Burung 2
Continental shelf submerged
at high sea
Sites with Holocene
Swamp sago Metroxylon sagu
Taro Colocasia elim. esculenta
Yam Discorea alata
Continental shelf exposed
at low sea
Sites with Pleistocene
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 | www.nature.com/natureplants
REVIEW ARTICLE NATURE PLANTS
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 lupusfamiliaris) and guineapig (Caviaporcellus), 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
Pacic aer Polynesian colonization and prior to European arrival
numbered in the hundreds, if notthousands79.
Nevertheless, outside of more vulnerable island contexts,
the adaptation of non-endemic domesticates to tropical forest
environments did not generally result in signicant 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 eects 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, refs80,81), represent some of the greatest
dangers facing tropical forests. Pre-industrial farming in tropical
forests, which oen employed re in controlled fashion (forexam-
ple, refs17,82), 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 | www.nature.com/natureplants 5
system, and largely appears to have encouraged more exible and
resilient farming systems based aroundpolyculture.
Forests of ruins or sustainable urbanism
Public perceptions of archaeology in tropical forests oen 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 twentiethcentury 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, SoutheastAsia, and Mesoamerica
clearly persisted for much longer than the modern industrial
and urban settlements in these environments have currently
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.
In1999, a high-magnitude storm in the Vargas region of northern
Venezuela triggered ash oods and mudslides that killed between
10,000and 15,000people 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. Forexample, 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 modication 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 KhmerEmpire, where hydrau-
lic systems ultimately failed7. e archaeological record oers both
mitigation strategies and cautionarytales.
Early Holocene Mid Holocene Late Holocene
11,700–8,200 –4,200 –present
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.
Figure 4 | LiDAR-derived bare earth model of urban and hydraulic
infrastructure at a city on Phnom Kulen, ~35km 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 | www.nature.com/natureplants
REVIEW ARTICLE NATURE PLANTS
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 signicant eects 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 suciently limited that evidence of signicant
human-induced erosion in Amazonia is so farscant.
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 signicant
degree in the modern world and is reected 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 oen appears to
have been strongly correlated with climate change98,99. On the other
hand, diversication, decentralization and ‘agrarian urbanism’
seem to have contributed to overallresilience100,101.
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 modication, 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 eorts 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
SriLanka103 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 UnitedNations2030 Sustainable Development
Programme105. Ecological restoration projects are also drawing on
archaeological data. In the tropical forests of Hawaii, for example,
wild owering plants identied 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 (forexample, 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 terrapreta 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
CentralAfrica 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 tropicalforests.
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 ecosystems’114,115 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 tropicalforests.
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
NATURE PLANTS 3, 17093 (2017) | DOI: 10.1038/nplants.2017.93 | www.nature.com/natureplants 7
Received 24 February 2017; accepted 17 May 2017;
published 3 August 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 oce in Mexico, for invitations to tropical forest conservation workshops
in Xalapa (2015) and Mexico City (2017). e discussions that took place during these
threeworkshops informed and shaped the early stages of this manuscript. We would also
like to extend our thanks to N. Hofer for her help with Figs1,2 and3. 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 No639828) in partnership with the APSARA National
Authority and the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, Cambodia. We also thank the
MaxPlanck Institute for the Science of Human History, Jena for the ongoing funding of
P.R. conceived of the manuscript, wrote the manuscript and conceived of and produced
Figs2and3. C.H. wrote the manuscript and conceived of and produced Fig.1.
M.A.-K. wrote the manuscript and conceived of and produced Figs2 and3. D.E. wrote
the manuscript and conceived of and produced Figs3 and4. N.B. conceived of the
manuscript, wrote the manuscript and conceived of Figs2 and3.
Reprints and permissions information is available at www.nature.com/reprints.
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).
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