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31 March 2014
Ancient pollen reveals how humans shaped forests

A new study of pollen samples from tropical forests in southeast Asia suggests humans have shaped these landscapes for thousands of years, finding signs of imported seeds, plants cultivated for food, and land clearance as early as 11,000 years ago - around the end of the last Ice Age.  
     Researchers led by palaeo-ecologist Chris Hunt, of Queen's University, Belfast, analysed existing data and examined samples from Borneo, Sumatra, Java, Thailand and Vietnam.
     Pollen offers an important key for unlocking the history of human activity. It can survive for thousands of years in the right conditions, and paint a picture of vegetation over time.
     In the Kelabit Highlands of Borneo, for example, pollen samples dated to about 6,500 years ago contain abundant evidence of fire. Scientists know that specific weeds and trees that flourish in charred ground would typically emerge in the wake of naturally occurring or accidental blazes, but what Hunt's team found instead was evidence of fruit trees. "This indicates that the people who inhabited the land intentionally cleared it of forest vegetation and planted sources of food in its place. It has long been believed that the rainforests of the Far East were virgin wildernesses, where human impact has been minimal," Hunt says.
     This kind of research 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 recognise 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."

Edited from Smithsonia.com (5 March 2014)

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