The paper, published in the journal PNAS, challenges existing notions about the history of land use. Past assessments have argued that as late as the 16th century, the majority of land on Earth was uninhabited.
But when an international team of researchers tested those assumptions, they uncovered a different story. By overlaying data on human populations and land use throughout history with information on biodiversity, they found that contrary to the common belief that only untouched land has high biodiversity, it actually existed and flourished in land shaped by humans.
Part of that was because of the ways in which past people traditionally inhabited their environments. Instead of large-scale societies that supported elites through colonization, resource extraction and practices like continual grazing and single-crop farming, indigenous people of the past demanded less from the land. Their methods of farming, migrating and hunting helped expand animal habitats, improve the soil and even disperse seeds.
So what led to today’s extinction crisis and the dwindling diversity of plant and animal species? In recent times, the authors write, “the appropriation, colonization, and intensifying use of lands already inhabited, used, and reshaped by current and prior societies” is responsible for the decline.
And to address the crisis, they suggest, conservationists, scientists and policymakers must both abandon the ideal of returning Earth to a “pristine” state and recognize and embrace more traditional land management practices already developed by indigenous peoples.
“Most of the places we think of as ‘pristine wilderness’ have been shaped by people for many millennia,” wrote co-author Jacquelyn Gill, an associate professor at the University of Maine’s Climate Institute, on Twitter. “Moving past the flawed thinking based on this myth is important for protecting biodiversity, and indigenous rights and sovereignty.”