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The Smithsonian Magazine has a nice report, Humans Relied on Rainforest Riches 12,000 Years Earlier Than Thought. The original paper is in Science, Direct evidence for human reliance on rainforest resources in late Pleistocene Sri Lanka:

Human occupation of tropical rainforest habitats is thought to be a mainly Holocene phenomenon. Although archaeological and paleoenvironmental data have hinted at pre-Holocene rainforest foraging, earlier human reliance on rainforest resources has not been shown directly. We applied stable carbon and oxygen isotope analysis to human and faunal tooth enamel from four late Pleistocene–to–Holocene archaeological sites in Sri Lanka. The results show that human foragers relied primarily on rainforest resources from at least ~20,000 years ago, with a distinct preference for semi-open rainforest and rain forest edges. Homo sapiens’ relationship with the tropical rainforests of South Asia is therefore long-standing, a conclusion that indicates the time-depth of anthropogenic reliance and influence on these habitats.

The idea that humans only inhabited the deep rainforest would seem strange to me form a human historical genetic perspective, there’s evidence that the Pygmy peoples of Africa are deeply diverged. That is, the western groups and the eastern groups separated tens of thousands of years ago. This needn’t imply that this divergence occurred within the rainforest context, but it seems more plausible to me that the low population densities and delimited ranges of this environment would be more conducive to reducing gene flow across populations than if the two populations developed their structure in the savanna.

The Smithsonian piece ends in a strange way to me though:

“If our ancestors were able to gain such crucial knowledge and respect for these ecologies throughout these long periods of time, then it is somewhat arrogant that we think we can now go and change them significantly without there being considerable consequences for animal or human populations living within them, or our species more widely,” says Roberts.

1491-cover This imputation of post-materialist values upon hunter-gatherers of the forest seems to me to be unwarranted. In 1491 Charles C. Mann reports on evidence that the “primal” rainforest of the Amazon was widely utilized by native peoples before the arrival of Europeans. Its relative emptiness and occupation by less advanced populations may have been a function of collapse induced by the introduction of European disease. In parts of western North America, such as the Willamette valley of Oregon, the same dynamic occurred. The great forests of the bottomlands that the white settlers encountered were relatively recent secondary growth which had developed in the wake of the population declines of native groups in the because of diseases introduced by the Europeans, which outran the extend of white occupation (though in some cases Europeans also consciously spread disease; e.g., distributing blankets of people who had survived smallpox).

51CvHNNZ6DL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ The trail of megafaunal extinction from Australia to the New World suggests to me that pre-modern people were just like modern people in how they respected or conceived the environment. That is, their view was one driven by short term concerns of survival, which one would assume from standard evolutionary theory. Over time cultures could iterate and converge upon more sustainable solution, but the initial waves of human refashioning of the ecology through continuous burning and one time pulse extinction of large organisms fit for consumption suggests a mindset which is easy for moderns to imagine I’d think. I doubt the boom and bust cycle driven by irrational manias emerges in a vacuum, the Malthusian conditions which are the consequence of intra-specific competition are a deep part of the nature of most organisms.

• Category: Science • Tags: Rainforests 
Razib Khan
About Razib Khan

"I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. If you want to know more, see the links at"