research | cultural change | natural sciences & mathematics

Earth transformed globally 4,000 years ago

International study: globalisation is much older than we originally thought

A recent study by 255 international archaeologists, including researchers from Kiel University’s Cluster of Excellence "ROOTS - Social, Environmental and Cultural Connectivity in Past Societies" and the Collaborative Research Centre (CRC) 1266 "Scales of Transformation: Human-Environmental Interaction in Prehistoric and Archaic Societies", has changed our picture of the human transformation of Earth. Accordingly, not only in the modern era, but as far back as 4,000 years ago, practically all areas on Earth were drastically changed by human land use. Over-hunting, nomadic animal husbandry, early agriculture and the first urban developments had already affected almost all parts of Earth by this time. In an unprecedented study, which has just been published in the scientific journal SCIENCE, the combined knowledge of experts worldwide shows how the early land use and settlement forms transformed Earth from 10,000 BC, and had a global impact on the environment no later than around 1000 BC. The extinction of species and the destruction of arable land already began back then. Therefore, contrary to previous assumptions, the roots of global change are much older than we originally thought. This will have a significant influence on modelling present and future changes. “This type of work causes us to rethink the role of humans in environmental systems, particularly in the way we understand 'natural' environments,” said Lucas Stephens of the University of Maryland Baltimore County, University of Pennsylvania, who led the global collaboration of archaeologists that produced the study, "it also allows us to identify patterns in the distribution of our data and prioritise future collection areas to improve the reliability of global datasets."

In the study, under Stephens’ leadership, global digital information about settlements, land use and early environmental changes was collected in the ArchaeoGLOBE database. In doing so, archaeological and paleo-ecological sources played a key role. Surprisingly, very good data is available on land use forms for the pre-Christian centuries, while for the historical period, priority research areas lie in other aspects. On the German side, the Max Planck Institute in Jena, Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen and Kiel University (CAU) were involved in the study.

From the CAU, Professor Johannes Müller contributed information on the development in northern and central Europe, south-eastern Europe and the northern Black Sea region to the study: "It is especially our excavations and investigations in the Collaborative Research Centre "Scales of Transformation: Human-Environmental Interaction in Prehistoric and Archaic Societies" that enabled the intensity of settlement and land use to be determined, which has also been included in this study." All our fieldwork in central, south-eastern and eastern Europe enabled us to make statements about the condition of the settlements in the period from 6000 to 500 BC, continued Müller. “In particular, Kiel University’s studies in the Ukraine and Moldova showed that from around 4000 BC, urbanisation processes could be observed in three regions of the world (forest-steppe zone north of the Black Sea, Mesopotamia and the Indus River area), but also that pastoral societies played an important role. Thus, the ongoing excavations of a Bronze Age ash heap (1300 BC) and a large settlement in Stolniceni (3800 BC) provide the broad time perspective required for the collection of global data".

The researchers involved in the study hope that by acknowledging the deep time impact of humans on this planet and better understanding human-environment interactions in the long term, we can better plan for future climate scenarios and possibly find ways of mitigating negative impacts on soils, vegetation and climate. And on top of that, "It's time to get beyond the mostly recent paradigm of the Anthropocene and recognise that the long-term changes of the deep past have transformed the ecology of this planet, and produced the social-ecological infrastructures - agricultural and urban - that made the contemporary global changes possible,” said Erle Ellis of the University of Maryland Baltimore County, a senior author who initially proposed and helped design the study. The search for these roots and their tricky reconstruction are also a challenge taken up by the Kiel Cluster of Excellence ROOTS. It is necessary, in order to be able to model current processes better. In addition, it has become clear that the much-debated Anthropocene process is one which is manageable.

Aerial view of excavation
© J. Müller/UFG

Excavations of Copper Age suburban settlements from the period around 3800 BC and of Bronze Age ash heaps from around 1300 BC in Moldova (Stolniceni) have made a decisive contribution to the reconstruction of the land use and settlements in the forest and grass steppes of Eurasia.

Aerial view
© J. Müller/UFG

The overuse of the soil, for example by livestock, changed the Eurasian steppe landscapes considerably as early as 4000 BC. In the picture, close to the excavation of pastoralist remains, today's sheep and goat herds on the barren black earth landscapes of Moldova.

More information:

Original publication:

Stephens, L. et al. Archaeological assessment reveals Earth's early transformation through land use Manuscript Number: science.aax1192a


Prof Dr Johannes Mueller
Institute of Prehistoric and Protohistoric Archaeology
Kiel University

Dr. Boris Pawlowski