Science & Technology

How Human Beings Shaped 'Wild' Forests

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

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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.