By 2050 the tropics will be home to over half of the world’s human population, with repercussions for the sustainable interaction of our species with the unique ecosystem services of tropical forests. Local impacts on tropical forests lead to major changes in climate, soil stability, and biotic diversity on regional and even planetary scales, and are a key part of the 20th and 21st century ‘Anthropocene’– the epoch in which humans have come to dominate earth systems. However, is it not possible that such feedback mechanisms began on pre-industrial timescales? If so, what does this mean for the current and future trajectories of our relationships with these increasing threatened environments? Here, I review a growing body of archaeological, historical, and palaeoenvironemntal evidence that demonstrates that humans had major impacts on tropical forest extent, structure, and composition as early as 45,000 years ago in order to challenge the idea that human influence on tropical forests was limited to the industrial era. I review the role of tropical forests in a variety of earth systems and posit how prehistoric and historic anthropogenic land cover change in the tropics may have begun to have wide-reaching effects on vegetation distribution, soil stability, climate parameters, and even the atmosphere. I argue that any definition of the ‘Anthropocene’ should account for the long history of human modifications to tropical forests, and that archaeological and palaeoenvironmental research in these ecosystems is critical to the broader debates in the social and natural sciences around the potential for long-term, sustainable occupation of tropical forest environments.

About the presenter

Patrick Roberts is Group Leader of the Stable Isotope Research Group at the, Department of Archaeology, Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Jena Germany. He is committed to applying stable isotope methods within multidisciplinary research programmes that are focused on human palaeoclimates, palaeoenvironments, palaeodiets and palaeomobility. Patrick has a number of international peer-reviewed publications that use stable isotope analysis in a variety of archaeological research contexts: ranging from reconstructing palaeoenvironmental conditions in East and South Africa, South and Southeast Asia, and Saudi Arabia associated with human habitation of these regions during the Pleistocene to dietary complexities in 18th and 19th century historical populations.  Patrick’s main theoretical interest is the changing relationship of our species and tropical forests. He is the author of the first global review of ‘Tropical Forests in Prehistory, History, and Modernity’ published in Oxford University Press and has published numerous articles rebutting popular stereotypes of these environments as pristine prior to industrial forces. Patrick is an active contributor to UNESCO discussions of cultural and natural heritage in tropical forests and is also a Senior Research Fellow with the School of Social Sciences, University of Queensland.

About Archaeology Working Papers

The Working Papers in Archaeology seminar series provides a forum for dissemination of archaeological research and ideas amongst UQ archaeology students and staff. All students are invited to attend the series and postgraduate students, from honours upwards, are invited to present their research. The aim is to provide opportunities for students, staff and those from outside UQ, to present and discuss their work in an informal environment. It is hoped that anyone interested in current archaeological directions, both within and outside the School and University, will be able to attend and contribute to the series.