It’s an idea that could change our understanding of how humans went from small groups of hunter-gatherers to farmers and citizens. Until recently, scientists believed that cities and farms emerged about 9,000 years ago in the Mediterranean and Middle East. But now a group of interdisciplinary researchers has gathered evidence showing that civilization as we know it may have emerged at the equator, in tropical forests. Not only that, but humans began changing their environments for food and shelter about 30,000 years earlier than previously thought.
For centuries, archaeologists believed that ancient people could not have lived in the jungle. The environment was simply too exciting and challenging, they thought. As a result, scientists simply do not find traces of ancient civilizations in the tropics. Instead, they turned their attention to the Middle East, where there is ample evidence that hunter-gatherers lived in farming villages 9,000 years ago during a period called the “Neolithic Revolution.” Eventually, these farmers built the ziggurats of Mesopotamia and the great pyramids of Egypt. It seems certain that urban life originated from these places and spread from there around the world.
But now that story seems uncertain. In the published article Nature plants, Max Planck Institute archaeologist Patrick Roberts and his colleagues explain that cities and farms are older than we thought. Using techniques ranging from genetic sampling of forest ecosystems and isotope analysis of human teeth, to soil analysis and lidar, researchers have found ample evidence that humans at the equator are actively changing the world to make it so more people-centric.
It all started about 45,000 years ago. At that time, people began to burn vegetation to make room for plant materials and buildings. Over the millennia, the simple act of burning the bush came back. People mix specialized soil for planting plants; they cleared fields for agriculture; they keep animals like chickens; and they planted yams, taro, sweet potatoes, garlic, black pepper, mangoes, and bananas.
École française d’Extrême-Orient archaeologist Damian Evans, an author on Creation book, says it wasn’t until a recent conference brought together researchers around the world that they realized they had discovered a global pattern. Very similar evidence for ancient agriculture can be found in Equatorial Africa, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. Later, people began to build “garden cities” in the same areas, where they lived in close quarters surrounded by cultivated land.
Evans, Roberts, and their colleagues did not raise questions about where cities began. More importantly, Roberts told Ars via email, they challenge the idea of a “Neolithic Revolution” in which the transition to urban life happened in just a few years. In the tropics, there is no bright line between nomadic life and agricultural life. When people first arrived in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Melanesia, they spent thousands of years adapting to the tropics, eventually “shaping the areas to meet their own needs,” he said. “So instead of big leaps, what we see is an improvement in local knowledge and adaptation in these areas over time.”
There is also evidence that, as soon as people arrived in South America, they began to live in the Amazon and began to do agriculture. Often these ancient farms were incorporated into highly developed networks of cities such as those of the Maya.
Do these findings mean that everything we know about urban development in the Middle East is wrong? No, Roberts said. Archaeologists are simply noting that the first cities took very different paths. “Clearly, urbanism is different in different parts of the world, and we need to be more flexible in how we define this,” he explained. He continued:
The tropics show that where the agricultural and urban lines are drawn can be very difficult to determine. Humans were clearly changing the environment and moving even small animals around as early as 20,000 years ago in Melanesia, they were draining large swathes of land in the Kuk Swamp to farm yams (and) bananas… From The Middle East / European perspective, there has always been a conflict of difference (“Neolithic revolution”) between hunting gatherers and farmers, (but) the tropics belieb this somewhat.
There are also lessons that modern city dwellers can learn from the ancient great cities of the global south. In short, these ancient settlements are proof of concept, proving that humans can live for thousands of years in fragile environments. In the tropics, our ancestors did it by living in low density areas, with local farms feeding communities and families. Instead of widespread agriculture, there is an agriculture of cleared areas on the edge of the forest.
Roberts says that problems in these areas arose recently, when “colonial institutions, industrial societies” came from outside the terraces and tried “to practice unitary, pastoral, and urban within them.” This leads to “unsustainable landscape change and environmental destruction,” he said. “A classic example of this is palm oil monoculture in Southeast Asia, which is basically destroying the local rainforest due to lack of genetic diversity, landscape instability, and the spread of fire across large areas of these regions.”
The ancient settlements of the tropics are also a reminder of that Homo sapiens is an incredibly adaptive, flexible species, said Roberts. That’s why we can “get all the environment on the planet, through the times of climate change action, and become the last hominin.” In other words, our ingenuity, sustainable farms and cities may be what saves us from the fate of the Neanderthals.
Nature plants2017. DOI: 10.1038 / plants.2017.93 (About DOIs).