Scientific American: People May Have Used Fire to Clear Forests More Than 80,000 Years Ago

Image: Abu Shawka, Wikimedia Commons

New research suggests that early modern humans used fire to transform a dense, closed-canopy “Afromontane” forest (depicted above) into a bushy, open-canopy “miombo” woodland around northern Lake Malawi in Africa.

Humanity’s environmental impact did not start with the bang of agriculture or industrialization but a whisper initiated long ago—one that scientists are finally learning to hear.

New archaeological and paleoenvironmental findings now date human activity that transformed our natural surroundings to more than 80,000 years ago, after early modern humans settled on the northern shores of Lake Malawi at the lower tip of eastern Africa’s Great Rift Valley. These humans dramatically modified the landscape and ecosystem by burning forests to yield a sprawling bushland that remains today, according to a report published on May 5th 2021 in Science Advances.

The finding marks the oldest evidence yet of humans profoundly changing their environment with fire. And it could represent the earliest known case of people deliberately doing so, the researchers hypothesize.

Read the whole story in Scientific American