Humans have been influencing landscapes and ecosystems on a global scale for far longer than people usually think, archeologists said in a newly published study.
"About twenty thousand years ago, in the latter days of the Pleistocene epoch, a cat-sized marsupial from New Guinea travelled by boat or raft to the rifle-shaped island of New Ireland. The South Pacific voyage of the northern common cuscus was likely involuntary, and likely ended—unhappily for the cuscus—in a cooking fire. But it was momentous: cuscus bones excavated from the floor of a New Ireland cave are some of the oldest archeological evidence of humans transporting an animal species to a new environment.
The typical story of human effects on other species begins with the passenger pigeon, or the famously unfortunate dodo, but archeologists know better. 'These processes have been under way for thousands of years, and species distributions have undergone layer upon layer of change,' Nicole Boivin, the director of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, in Germany, told me recently. 'What we see now are the cumulative effects of those changes.' In a review published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Boivin and her co-authors draw together new and old evidence for our long reshaping of the biosphere.
Even before the pioneering voyage of the cuscus, the authors write, humans burned tropical rain forests to encourage the growth of useful plants and draw game into the open. Recent studies have bolstered the hypothesis that human hunting contributed to the extinction of Pleistocene animals ranging from the woolly mammoth to the giant wombat to the North American camel. The rise of agriculture saw the domestication of many types of flora and fauna, which were dispersed worldwide."