Humans have been changing nature for thousands of years. To shape a sustainable future, it is important to understand that deep history

In July 2024, all eyes will be on Paris for the Summer Olympics. Spectators from around the world will converge on the City of Light to watch athletes compete and enjoy the culture, romance and history of one of the world’s most recognizable cities.

But an iconic landmark in Paris, Notre Dame Cathedral, is still being renovated after a devastating fire ignited in the cathedral on April 14, 2019 and burned for twelve hours. When the last embers were extinguished, most of Notre Dame’s wood and metal was gone. the roof was destroyed and the majestic spire was gone, consumed by flames.

Notre Dame is almost 1000 years old and has been damaged and repaired many times. The last major renovation took place in the mid-19th century. The massive beams that frame the structure are made from European oak trees harvested 300 to 400 years ago.

Today these trees are common in north-central Europe, but few are tall enough to replace the roof lattice and spire of Notre Dame, thanks to centuries of deforestation. Planners had to search nationally for enough suitable large oaks for the restoration.

French foresters harvest centuries-old oak trees for the reconstruction of the roof structure and spire of Notre Dame.

As an archaeologist I study long-term human interactions with nature. In my new book, Understanding Imperiled Earth: How Archeology and Human History Inform a Sustainable Future, I describe how addressing modern environmental crises requires an understanding of deep history—not just written human records, but also ancient connections between people and nature. world.

Many people assume that the devastating effects humans have caused on our planet came about during the Industrial Age, which began in the mid-1700s. But humans have been transforming conditions on Earth for thousands of years. Looking back can inform our journey forward.

From deforestation to reforestation

To see how this works, let’s look at the shortage of tall trees for Notre Dame from a broader perspective. Deforestation in Europe dates back at least 10,000 years, to the time when early farmers flooded the continent, clearing forests and creating agricultural and pastoral lands to shape today’s landscapes.

Based on archaeological evidence, pollen-based models and written records, scientists have determined that forest cover in northern, central and western Europe reached its highest density about 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, followed by a gradual decline over the intervening millennia. By 1700 AD, people were farming on 250 million acres (100 million hectares) of agricultural lands, most of which had been created by clearing native European forests.

Volunteers plant native trees in a reforestation project in Scotland.

Millions of acres of wood became fuel for household fireplaces, and then for furnaces and boilers during the Industrial Revolution. This process was so transformative that famed British geographer HC Darby wrote about it in 1954, calling it “probably the most important factor that changed the European landscape.”

Most of these forests were lost long before scientists could study them, but historical detective work can fill in the missing information. By identifying charred plant remains from ancient fire pits and analyzing pollen from lake and soil cores, archaeologists can map where ancient forests once flourished, determine which species were represented, and reconstruct what forests looked like.

Today, European countries are working to restore forests across the continent to slow climate change and species loss. With historical information about past forests, modern scientists can make better choices about which tree species to plant, select the best locations, and predict how the trees might respond to future climate change.

Understanding what is possible

Over the past fifty years, the speed and extent of human impact on the Earth have increased. In what scientists have called “the Great Acceleration,” human activities such as clearing forests, converting land for agriculture and development, overharvesting wildlife and fishing, and warming the atmosphere due to widespread use of fossil fuels, living conditions have changed.

For people born in this era of dizzying change, it can be difficult to imagine life on Earth before humans recreated it. Scientists have pointed out the danger of so-called “shifting baselines” – the widespread tendency to assume that the current depleted state of nature is the way things have always been. If we know how ecosystems used to look and function, and how human actions have changed them, the scale of nature’s conservation tasks becomes clearer.

History offers insight into what the world once looked like, long before globalization and industrial activity reshaped the planet. Discarded animal bones, charcoal fragments, broken stone tools, and other driftwood from the distant past provide clues to the size and abundance of animal species, the location and composition of native forests and landscapes, and fluctuating atmospheric conditions. They also indicate how people, plants and animals responded to these changes.

Informing about a resilient future

The past can help modern societies meet today’s environmental challenges in countless ways. To understand how careful historical detective work and scientific creativity are required. Here are a few examples:

  • Tracing the site where indigenous fishermen have collected black abalone for more than 10,000 years could guide recovery efforts for this endangered species. Recent archaeological and anthropological research reveals numerous examples of effective indigenous strategies, showcasing innovative land management, sustainable agriculture, and resilient community practices honed over centuries.
  • Understanding the history of deforestation and land conversion patterns can help health experts anticipate future pandemics. Many infectious diseases spread from wildlife to humans, and human activities such as deforestation and urbanization are bringing people and wildlife into increasingly close contact. This increases the risk of transmission of zoonotic diseases.
  • Museum collections can help scientists document and understand species declines and develop effective strategies to combat the loss of global biodiversity. For example, museum collections of preserved amphibians have allowed scientists to track the spread of the deadly chytrid fungus, helping to develop targeted conservation strategies to protect vulnerable frog species.

Humans can slow and perhaps even reverse the ecological damage they have caused, but the Earth will never return to a pristine state of the past.

Nevertheless, I believe history can help people save the remaining wild, natural places on Earth that, along with cultural icons like Notre Dame, tell the stories of who we are. The goal is not to go backwards, but to create a more resilient, sustainable and biodiverse planet.The conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Teaser image credit: The 2019 fire destroyed Notre-Dame’s wooden roof and flèche, but left the outer structure largely intact. By Wandrille de Préville – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

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