The Big Culprit Behind
Land Deterioration Agriculture
(Page 1)

Before the start of agriculture, humans survived by gathering plants and hunting animals for food. The impact of these activities on the land was minimal. With the start of crop cultivation, man left more disruptive footprints on our land. This impact was made worse by when our lands were cultivated more intensively to cope with a growing world population.

Below, Professor Nils Nykvist shared on how man’s impact on land changed as we changed from being a hunter-gatherer to a land cultivator.


By Professor Nils Nykvist

The days of the hunters-gatherers

A common view of the origin of humans is that the first ones came down from the trees and began to walk upright in the savannah plains of Africa.
This hypothesis has recently been questioned, since at the place of the discovery of the oldest human, Ardi, fossils of plants that indicate a woodier environment were also found. Further arguments against the so-called savannah hypothesis are that there is no evidence that there were large savannah areas at that time in Africa and that grasslands usually grow back to forest unless fires or animals hamper the growth of shrubs and trees.

In turn, fires occurred naturally by lightning or as a result of volcanoes. So it is perhaps not such a coincidence that the fossils of the first humans are found in areas with deposits from volcanic eruptions.

For the first humans, meat was probably the most important food source in addition to fruit and roots. With the help of naturally occurring fire, trees were killed and a vegetation of grasses and herbs was created that was more suitable for grass-eating animals that the first humans hunted.

The recently burnt areas also gave people better control of their prey, as the animals favored these areas where the plants were especially rich in nutrients. The big game abundance of savannahs in the national parks of East Africa provides an indication of the favorable conditions that fire can create for the wild herbivores (Fig. 1).
Figure 1. Zebras on a recently burnt savannah. Mikumi National Park, Tanzania.

In general, the land use of the hunter-gatherers did not cause any severe degradation of the land, because they largely lived in ecological balance with their environment.

The start of agriculture

In areas with annual flooding, the availability of edible fruits, seeds and roots are very rich because the supply of nutrient-rich sediments eroded down from the surrounding hills.

It was therefore no coincidence that agriculture began to develop at the great rivers Euphrates, Tigris, Nile, and Indus, and the Chinese rivers Yangtze Kiang and Huang He (Yellow River).

When the naturally fertilized fields caused by the floods were not enough for the growing population, people began to cultivate the ash-enriched soil that was formed when trees and shrubs were burnt down.

In an area that was mostly less than one hectare, shrubs and small trees were cut down and placed around the base of the large trees, where they dried before being burnt. In this way the larger trees also were killed that would otherwise compete with crops for water and nutrients.

See the references for this article.

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