The scope and significance of past humanenvironment interactions

We have known since the 1940s that, in northern Europe, human activities have led to forest clearance and changes in land-cover from early Neolithic times onwards (Iversen 1941). Over the succeeding decades, several publications have shown that some of the resulting changes in ecosystem function led to early transformation of land-cover that has persisted to the present day (Godwin 1944). The role of environmental changes, including climatic change, as major factors in past human welfare has often captured the imagination of both scientists and the general public (e.g. Diamond 2005). Human-environment interactions are complex and work in several directions; how, within these complex, interactive fields can we, as paleoscientists, with the tools currently at our disposal, define and explore the key themes that are important both for understanding the present-day environment and for best addressing the likely course of future environmental change? Can we establish and exemplify a research agenda that is timely, tractable, and makes a significant contribution to Earth System Science?

Five interlinked themes may be addressed under the heading of this chapter:

1 The impact of past human activities, acting alongside and interacting with Holocene climate change, on past and present ecosystems.

2 The effects of past land-use/land-cover changes on climate at regional scale and beyond.

3 The combined effects of the above on the hydrologic cycle and on erosion regimes.

4 The effects of past land-use/land-cover changes on atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations and the consequent climatic implications.

5 The impacts of climate change on human societies in the past and the ways in which the effects of these changes have been mediated through the responses of the societies affected.

Each of these is considered below.

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