People have shaped most of terrestrial nature for at least 12,000 years

Published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America

Erle C. Ellis, Nicolas Gauthierb, Kees Klein Goldewijk, Rebecca Bliege Bird, Nicole Boivin,  Sandra Díaz, Dorian Q. Fuller, Jacquelyn L. Gill, Jed O. Kaplan, Naomi Kingston, Harvey Locke,  Crystal N. H. McMichael, Darren Ranco, Torben C. Rick, M. Rebecca Shaw, Lucas Stephens,  Jens-Christian Svenning, James E. M. Watsonr


Publication year 2021
  • Department of Geography and Environmental Systems, University of Maryland Baltimore County, Baltimore, MD 21250
  • School of Geography, Development and Environment, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ 85721
  • Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ 85721
  • PBL The Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, 2594 AV The Hague, The Netherlands
  • Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, Utrecht University, 3584 CB, Utrecht, The Netherlands
  • Department of Anthropology, The Pennsylvania State University, State College, PA 16801
  • Department of Archaeology, Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Jena, Germany 07745
  • School of Social Science, The University of Queensland, St Lucia, Australia QLD 4072
  • Instituto Multidisciplinario de Biología Vegetal, Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas (CONICET) and Facultad de Ciencias Exactas, Físicas y Naturales, Universidad Nacional de Córdoba, Córdoba, Argentina 5000
  • Institute of Archaeology, University College London, London, WC1H 0PY United Kingdom
  • School of Cultural Heritage, Northwest University, Xi&rsquoan, Shaanxi, China 710069
  • School of Biology and Ecology and Climate Change Institute, University of Maine, Orono, ME 04469
  • Department of Earth Sciences, The University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, China
  • United Nations Environment Programme World Conservation Monitoring Centre, Cambridge, CB3 0DL United Kingdom
  • Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, Banff, AB, Canada T2L 1G1
  • Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics, University of Amsterdam, 1090 GE Amsterdam, The Netherlands
  • Department of Anthropology, University of Maine, Orono, ME 04469
  • Department of Anthropology, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC 20560
  • The World Wide Fund for Nature, San Francisco, CA 94105
  • Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, Duke University, Durham, NC 27708
  • Center for Biodiversity Dynamics in a Changing World (BIOCHANGE), Department of Biology, Aarhus University, DK-8000 Aarhus C, Denmark
  • School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, The University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia 4072
  • Wildlife Conservation Society, Bronx, NY 10460
IAI Program
  •  Newton Fund (Natural Environmental Research Council-UK and CONICET-Argentina)
  • the Inter-American Institute for Climate Change Research Small Grant Program 090.
  • NSF CAREER grant EAR-1753186.
  • VILLUM FONDEN Investigator grant 16549.
  • Global Land Programme (
IAI Project SGP-HW090
PDFPeople have shaped most of terrestrial nature for at.pdf


Archaeological and paleoecological evidence shows that by 10,000 BCE, all human societies employed varying degrees of ecologically transformative land use practices, including burning, hunting, species propagation, domestication, cultivation, and others that have left long-term legacies across the terrestrial biosphere. Yet, a lingering paradigm among natural scientists, conservationists, and policymakers is that human transformation of terrestrial nature is mostly recent and inherently destructive. Here, we use the most up-to-date, spatially explicit global reconstruction of historical human populations and land use to show that this paradigm is likely wrong. Even 12,000 y ago, nearly three quarters of Earth&rsquos land was inhabited and therefore shaped by human societies, including more than 95% of temperate and 90% of tropical woodlands. Lands now characterized as &ldquonatural,&rdquo &ldquointact,&rdquo and &ldquowild&rdquo generally exhibit long histories of use, as do protected areas and Indigenous lands, and current global patterns of vertebrate species richness and key biodiversity areas are more strongly associated with past patterns of land use than with present ones in regional landscapes now characterized as natural. The current biodiversity crisis can seldom be explained by the loss of uninhabited wildlands, resulting instead from the appropriation, colonization, and intensifying use of the biodiverse cultural landscapes long shaped and sustained by prior societies. Recognizing this deep cultural connection with biodiversity will therefore be essential to resolve the crisis.