How Human Beings Shaped 'Wild' Forests

...and what that might suggest about people's rights to those forests today


I've got my property title RIGHT HERE.

Here's a doubly interesting Smithsonian story about a study in southeast Asia. After examining pollen samples from Borneo, Sumatra, Java, Thailand, and Vietnam, the magazine reports, the paleoecologist Chris Hunt and the archeologist Ryan Rabett concluded that "humans have shaped these landscapes for thousands of years." That may sound uncontroversial, but it isn't: "Although scientists previously believed the forests were virtually untouched by people, researchers are now pointing to signs of imported seeds, plants cultivated for food, and land clearing as early as 11,000 years ago—around the end of the last Ice Age."

The article goes on to explain the evidence and reasoning that led Hunt and Rabett to their conclusions, as well as how their findings feed into "a larger discussion about when and how our species began shaping the world around us." All very interesting stuff, especially for those of us who do not fetishize "untouched" "wilderness" and see human beings as a part of nature, not an intrusive alien force.

And then we get to the other reason the piece is interesting. Hunt thinks there's a political dimension to his work, a way to help indigenous people stake out a Lockean claim to their territories:

This kind of research is about more than glimpsing ancient ways of life. It could also present powerful information for people who live in these forests today. According to Hunt, "Laws in several countries in Southeast Asia do not recognize the rights of indigenous forest dwellers on the grounds that they are nomads who leave no permanent mark on the landscape." The long history of forest management traced by this study, he says, offers these groups "a new argument in their case against eviction."

Such tensions have played out beyond Southeast Asia. In Australia, for example, "the impact of humans on the environment is clear stretching back over 40,000 years or so," says environmental geoscientist Dan Penny, of The University of Sydney. And yet, he says, "the material evidence of human occupation is scarce." Starting in the 18th century, the British used that fact "to justify their territorial claim" to land inhabited by Aboriginal Australians—declaring it terra nullius (belonging to no-one), establishing a colony, and eventually claiming sovereignty over the entire continent.

It would be a stretch, of course, to treat that pollen alone as a property title, especially so many centuries later and among men and women who aren't necessarily the descendents of the people who lived in those forests 11,000 years ago. But as a way to change the terms of the conversation around those seizures and evictions—to show that mixing your labor with the land can take many forms, and that individuals can intervene in their environments in ways that aren't always obvious to outsiders—Hunt may well be right about his study's implications. 

You can read the rest of the Smithsonian article here. And if you're willing to shell out $35.95 for it—or if you have access to the site through an academic institution—you can download Hunt and Rabett's paper from the Journal of Archaeological Science here.

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  1. Starting in the 18th century, the British used that fact “to justify their territorial claim” to land inhabited by Aboriginal Australians?declaring it terra nullius (belonging to no-one), establishing a colony, and eventually claiming sovereignty over the entire continent.

    Yeah, well, the British also claimed sovereignty over the Indian subcontinent, so I don’t think the lack of “terra nullius” would have stopped them.

    1. Colonization, Destiny of [name the empire] and Eminent Domain all really boil down to “I’m bigger than you.”

      1. “Do you have a flag?”

        1. Damn your nimble fingers!

      2. They didn’t have a flag.

  2. This is a concept I was introduced to through the book Wild in Woods: The Myth of the Noble Eco-Savage.
    It also explained how the idea that the American Indians were careful caretakers of their environment runs counter to all evidence. They burn whole mountainsides for smoke signals. They drove thousands of bison off precipices to harvest a handful of carcasses.
    It also mentions research showing the pre-columbian Amazon was separated into at least 5 individual forests.

  3. Two things:

    1) So you’re saying aboriginals of yore were gamboling about field and plain? WHYTE INJUN WUZ RITE!!111!!

    2) as early as 11,000 years ago?around the end of the last Ice Age – so we’ve been experiencing TEH GLOBAL WARMING FOR ELEVENTY THOUSAND YEARSSzZ!11! too! Also!

    My world is shaken…

    1. OK, Dances With DFW was right about a few, narrow things, sure. I tried talking with her about those things. Problem was she couldn’t focus on them. She wanted to keep spitting the copious chaff.
      Anybody know what all her weird brackets and such were all about?

      1. OK, Dances With DFW was right about a few, narrow things, sure.

        Nope. Not even a few, narrow things.

        Just unadulterated crazy.

        1. And by her I mean you, another of her not very subtle socks.

  4. It would be a stretch, of course, to treat that pollen alone as a property title[…]

    No one expects the Spanish Inquisition!

    Oh, don’t fret. Anti-property zealots will cling to any ledge and grasp at any straw, like for instance treating pollen as property title even when there is no longer a claimant, to undermine the property rights of living persons. You would be surprised at their tenacity, as wrongheaded as it could be.

  5. This is my unshocked face.

    While humans might not have tilled every speck, they improved upon wherever they lived to make it more productive and better suited to habitation. (as a general rule, there are exceptions where something has gone wrong)

    1. You mean like Chernobyl? People are living longer there than the people who left.

  6. Hunt thinks there’s a political dimension to his work, a way to help indigenous people stake out a Lockean claim to their territories

    The implication of Mr. Hunt’s research is much more telling and problematic for tree-hugger types which are prevalent among Academia and the scientific community, mainly that forests are not the untouched and pristine time-capsules of their fancy. In fact, Native Americans used to burn down forests to give way to pastures for the buffalo and elk. Trees behave and are basically giant weeds, vying for resources with more succulent plants and utilizing some interesting (but highly destructive) tactics like immolation to get rid of their competition. All of this makes the case for “conservation” that much less rational, so it is no wonder that Hunt and others would not be willing to talk about the real implications of their work.

    1. Smith and several others wrote about the wide open spaces you could almost drive a carriage down without benefit of a road.

  7. My favorite “untouched wilderness” story is from maybe a dozen or so years ago. Eco-warrior Bill McKibben wrote something rhapsodizing about a cabin he has in an old-growth forest. Someone did some research and discovered that that location had been clear-cut in the late 1800s. It had regrown so completely that McKibben thought it was old-growth forest.

  8. The argument here appears to be that somebody else (we don’t know who) a long time ago (we couldn’t really say when) did something or other (hard to say what, really), so you should get title?

  9. Forests are important for a lot of reasons like clean water and air, timber resources and erosion control. But the idea that they are so incredibly fragile and if they get cut they are gone forever is just silly. We already knew that there have been large scale civilizations in places that have since returned to jungle. And it happens pretty fast in tropical places.

    Personally, I am very fond of wild places and old forests. And I think there is a lot of value in preserving biodiversity for a number of reasons. But that doesn’t mean that the world is so fragile that you can’t touch anything.

  10. There was in interesting video about how wolves changed the rivers in Yellowstone. It’s narrated by that communist Monbiot but still interesting. Basically, it’s not the number of deer the wolves kill, so much as that they scare the deer into staying out of the plains and lowlands which has a huge longterm effect on the rivers, less meandering, stronger banks, more grass and trees, less erosion, etc.

  11. The study’s authors are Hunt and Rabbet???????

    Elmer Fudd is getting his shotgun as we speak….

    1. If so, he’s being vewwy vewwy quiet about it.

  12. I don’t get the importance of a Lockean claim in the first place.

    I’m very much aligned with Coase here: Initial ownership means very little, as long as title can be transfered between parties, ownership eventually ends in the hands of whoever can make the most productive use of the asset.

    From that perspective, the most important thing is non-disputability of ownership, ease of transfer, and fair (and predictable) arbitration of disputes.

    Making ownership depend on something so damn fuzzy as “improving the land” seems like a step backwards.

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