If you pay any attention to environmental stories, you’ve likely heard the term “Anthropocene” bandied about, proposed as a name for a new geological epoch. Epochs are those long, long ago time chunks with the clunky names, the only one of which to ever be reliably remembered is the Jurassic, because I’m told there was a movie or something. The boundaries between epochs are written in stone, literally, and there is a committee in charge of them.
At any rate, the idea is that humans have made physical changes to the planet equivalent in scale to, say, the beginning or end of an ice age. The term is particularly strongly associated with skyrocketing populations and anthropogenic global warming, and the implication is usually that the period in question started in the past couple of centuries.
So if you’re going to draw a line between the Holocene, which began with the end of the last ice age (about 11,700 years before the present), and the Anthropocene you’re saying is currently under way, where do you draw the line, and what in the geological record do you tie it to? Two common suggestions are the late 1700s–the Industrial Revolution’s dramatic increase in CO2 emissions–and the mid 1900s–nuclear fallout.
The Society for American Archaeology got wind of this whole thing and wanted in on the fun. At their annual meeting this spring there was a panel on the term. Here’s my favorite line from a paper that came out of the conference due to be published in the brand new journal Anthropocene: “Perhaps not surprisingly, researchers have often found the most significant indicators of the Holocene-Anthropocene transition, and sometimes the only indicators of interest, within the boundaries of their own discipline.” ZING. Time to bring in some archaeologists to push some start dates back. How much farther back?*
One pair argued for a particularly interesting marker–in a way, none at all.
They offer the time between 11,000 and 9,000 years ago, when humans began domesticating plants and animals. Domestication, for them, is also a stand-in for other accompanying “niche constructing techniques,” which is basically a fancy way of saying that humans learned how to change the world around them to better suit their tastes.
This isn’t just a human thing. Beavers (See! Told you they’d show up eventually.) are the most famous ecosystem engineers–they cut down trees, build homes, and dam the flow of streams, completely changing ecosystems. (Beaver fun fact #1: the Catholic Church once classified them as fish so people could eat them on Fridays during Lent. Beaver fun fact #2: surprisingly popular heraldic motif.) Plenty of other animals change their environments as well, particularly to build homes.
But starting 11,000-9,000 years ago, humans got really good at it, in large part because people who picked up a new trick tended to share it with all their friends, a habit that may ring a bell. And once people figured out how to domesticate plants and animals, it wasn’t long before agriculture came along, humans converted swaths of not-fields to fields, populations grew, and humans constructed their niches with ever more effective techniques, like digging wells and mixing concrete.
“That’s all well and good,” I hear you say, “But what about that bit you mentioned where the lines between epochs have to be visible in the rock?” Well, there are remains of domesticated species trapped underground and tied into geologic records quite nicely. In case that bit seems like dodging the point, though, they’ve got a back-up plan, which takes me back to the bit (before the beavers, after the ZING) where I mentioned they sort of suggested no boundary at all.
That’s because they suggested a boundary that’s already in use–the same end-of-ice-age that currently marks the beginning of the Holocene. You’ll recollect that date is around 11,700 years ago, domesticated species start showing up 11,000-9,000 years ago–close enough for government work.
In other words, they’re arguing that the Holocene and the Anthropocene are more or less the same thing. You may be wondering why you care, or at least why you care 700-odd words worth. Here’s why: because what we call things, how we categorize them matters.
If the Anthropocene started in the late 1700s, then:
- It implies that humans’ impact on the planet before the late 1700s was negligible.
- It is less intuitive to look at the suite of changes humans have made to the planet as a whole; it’s easier to forget that the parts you’re less interested in still exist.
- The term carries a bias: at that point, it’s pretty inextricably tied to the idea that humans are screwing up the planet and need to stop, ASAP.
The earlier you push this date, the more neutral the term becomes. By defining the Anthropocene as beginning with domestication, you broaden the range of processes and techniques you consider.
Being a classics major, you get asked pretty regularly why studying things that happened 2000+ years ago was a good use of anyone’s time. To me, stories like this are an important reminder of why we need a range of perspectives and scales, whether in terms of time, place, class, gender, size, or any other factor that marks reflects our experiences, expertise, or background: humans do better together, and not just when it comes to learning the tricks behind domestication.
*In addition to the late 1800s, mid 1900s, and 11,000-9,000 years ago dates, a few other alternatives being explored: 2,000 years ago/around the year 0 (soil changes from heavy plowing and fertilizing), 5,000-4,000 years ago (methane emissions from rice cultivation), and 13,800 years ago (increased plant pollen counts caused by decreased herbivory from humans killing off megafauna).