Fields, streets and cities, but also forests planted in rank and file, and dead straight rivers: humans shape nature to better suit their purposes, and not only since the onset of industrialization. Such influences are well documented in the Amazonian rainforest. On the other hand, the influence of humans was debated in Central Africa where major interventions seem to have occurred there 2,600 years ago: Potsdam geoscientist Yannick Garcin and his team have published a report on their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The research team examined lake sediments in southern Cameroon to solve the riddle of the "rainforest crisis." They found that the drastic transformation of the rainforest ecosystem at this time wasn't a result of climatic change, it was humankind.
|Farming activities in North-West Region of Cameroon [Credit: Better World Cameroon]|
"The rainforest crisis is proven, but it cannot be explained by a climate change," says Garcin. "In fact, in over 460 archaeological finds in the region, we have found indications that humans triggered these changes in the ecosystem." Archaeological remains older than 3,000 years are rare in Central Africa. Around 2,600 years ago, coincident with the rainforest crisis, the number of sites increased significantly, suggesting a rapid human population growth -- probably related to the expansion of the Bantu-speaking peoples in Central Africa. This period also saw the emergence of pearl millet cultivation, oil palm use, and iron metallurgy in the region.
"We are therefore convinced that it was not climate change that caused the rainforest crisis 2,600 years ago, but it was the growing populations that settled in the region and needed to clear the forest for exploiting arable land," says Garcin. "We are currently observing a similar process underway in many parts of Africa, South America, and Asia." But the work of Garcin and his team also shows that nature has powerful regenerative abilities. When anthropogenic pressure decreased 2,000 years ago forest ecosystems reconstituted, but not necessarily as before: as in the Amazonian rainforest, field studies show that the presence of certain species is very often related to past human activity.
Source: GFZ GeoForschungsZentrum Potsdam, Helmholtz Centre [February 26, 2018]