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Home » Humans have been altering the environment with fire for at least 85,000 years: new study

Humans have been altering the environment with fire for at least 85,000 years: new study

Humans have been altering the environment with fire for at least 85,000 years: new study

UCalgary research team offers key contributions to Yale-led paper

A multinational study led by Yale and including a University of Calgary research team provides the earliest evidence to date of ancient humans significantly altering entire ecosystems with fire.

The study, published on May 5 in the journal Science Advances, combines archaeological evidence with paleoenvironmental data on the northern shores of Lake Malawi in eastern Africa to document that early humans were ecosystem engineers. They used fire — as far back as 85,000 years — to prevent regrowth of the region’s forests, which created a sprawling bushland that still exists today.

“This is the earliest evidence I have seen of humans fundamentally transforming their ecosystem with fire. It suggests that by the Late Pleistocene age, humans were learning to use fire in truly novel ways. In this case, their burning caused replacement of the region’s forests with the open woodlands you see today,” says Dr. Jessica Thompson, lead author and assistant professor of anthropology in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Yale University.

Thompson authored the study with 27 colleagues from institutions in the United States, Canada, Africa, Europe, Asia and Australia. Thompson led the archaeological work in collaboration with the Malawi Department of Museums and Monuments, David Wright of the University of Oslo, who led efforts to date the study’s archaeological sites, and Sarah Ivory of Penn State, who led the paleoenvironmental analysis.

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