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'Pristine' landscapes simply do not exist anywhere in the world today and, in most cases, have not existed for at least several thousand years, says a new study led by the University of Oxford.

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Image: www.shuttrestock.com,  Footprints on the sand at empty sunset beach

An exhaustive review of archaeological data from the last 30 years details how the world’s landscapes have been shaped by repeated human activity over many thousands of years. It reveals a pattern of significant, long-term, human influence on the distribution of species across all of the earth’s major occupied continents and islands.

The paper by lead author Dr Nicole Boivin from Oxford and Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, with researchers from the UK, US, and Australia, suggests that archaeological evidence has been missing from current debates about conservation priorities. To say that societies before the Industrial Revolution had little effect on the environment or diversity of species is mistaken, argues the paper. It draws on new datasets using ancient DNA, stable isotopes, and microfossils, as well as the application of new statistical and computational methods. It shows that many living species of plants, trees and animals that thrive today are those that were favoured by our ancestors; and that large-scale extinctions started thousands of years ago due to overhunting or change of land use by humans. The paper concludes that in light of this and other evidence of long-term anthropogenic change, we need to be more pragmatic in our conservation efforts rather than aiming for impossible ‘natural’ states.

Read more on the University website (opens new window)