Image of green grass field and brown soil. Photo: Elizabeth Lies/Unsplash

Sydney expertise helps reveal Earth's early transformation

30 August 2019
Researchers contribute to landmark global assessment
University of Sydney experts are among a global group of 250 archaeologists who have contributed to a groundbreaking assessment of ancient land use.

Professor Peter Hiscock and Dr Patrick Faulkner from the University’s Department of Archaeology are members of the ArchaeoGLOBE project, a global group of hundreds of archaeologists sharing knowledge on human land use across the globe over the past 10,000 years.

“We are thrilled to be part of this project. It is exciting to see the ways that new scientific comparative data is already helping us reveal new patterns and better understand humans’ legacy on Earth,” Professor Hiscock said.

New Science paper reveals Earth’s early anthropogenic transformation

In a new work published today in premier scientific journal Science, the ArchaeoGLOBE project reveals the deep roots of Earth’s reshaping into the human planet we now inhabit.

The new study reveals that humans have been transforming the Earth’s ecology for thousands of years – far longer than previously known by Earth scientists.

By hunting and foraging, farming and urbanising Earth’s land over the past 10,000 years, human societies drove species extinct, deforested large regions, tilled up Earth’s soils, and released carbon into the atmosphere, creating the planet as we know it today.

The earlier start times for land use revealed by this study have profound implications for understanding and modelling contemporary global changes in land use, climate and biodiversity around the world.

Implications for understanding Australia’s history

The project found clear evidence for massive changes in nineteenth century Australia, as pastoralism, agriculture and urbanism became widespread following the arrival of the British.

Although extensive and intensive agriculture had not been practiced in Australia until the nineteenth century, the project also recognised ongoing alteration of ecosystems and impacts on plants and animals by Indigenous peoples for many thousands of years.

In particular, the intentional burning of vegetation by many hunter-gatherer societies around the globe contributed to an altered pattern of carbon emissions and modification of vegetation long before modern use of fossil fuels.

“Our research reinforces the arrival of intensive agriculture in Australia during the last two centuries, not much earlier as has been recently claimed by popularist books in Australia,” said Professor Hiscock.

About the ArchaeoGLOBE project

The project was developed as an extension of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC)’s NSF-funded GLOBE project towards the goal of engaging the local expertise of archaeologists around the world to create a global assessment of land use changes since the last ice age.

The work represents the first global assessment of land use by archaeologists; a collaborative achievement in itself.

The project was led by Erle C. Ellis and Lucas Stephens at UMBC and involved archaeologists from around the world including Australian scientists Professor Peter Hiscock and Dr Patrick Faulkner from University of Sydney.

Declaration: Professor Hiscock and Dr Faulkner acknowledge the support of the Tom Austen Brown Endowment. Dr Faulker’s research has also been funded by the School of Philosophical and Historical Enquiry, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences Research Support Grants, and the Max Planck Society.

Jennifer Peterson-Ward

Media and PR Adviser (Humanities)

Loren Smith

Assistant Media Adviser (Humanities)

Related articles