London, Jan 26: The tropical forests of southeast Asia have been shaped by humans for the last 11,000 years, according to new research.
Researchers at Queen’s University in Belfast (Northern Ireland), have discarded theories that the rainforests of Borneo, Sumatra, and Java (in Indonesia), Thailand and Vietnam were largely unaffected by humans.
A deep analysis of vegetation histories across the three islands and the southeast Asian mainland has revealed a pattern of repeated disturbance of vegetation since the end of the last ice age, approximately 11,000 years ago, said palaeoecologist Dr Chris Hunt.
“It has long been believed that the rainforests of the Far East were virgin wildernesses, where human impact has been minimal. Our findings, however, indicate a history of disturbances to vegetation,” said Dr Hunt, director of research on environmental change at Queen’s School of geography, archaeology and palaeoecology.
“These vegetation changes have been brought about by the actions of people,” he added.
There is evidence that humans in the Kelabit Highlands of Borneo burned fires to clear the land for planting food-bearing plants.
Pollen samples from around 6,500 years ago contain abundant charcoal, indicating the occurrence of fire, said the study published in the Journal of Archaeological Science.
“This indicates that the people who inhabited the land intentionally cleared it of forest vegetation and planted sources of food in its place,” Hunt added.
Laws in several southeast Asian countries do not recognise the rights of indigenous forest dwellers on the grounds that they are nomads who leave no permanent mark on the landscape.
“Given that we can now demonstrate their active management of the forests for more than 11,000 years, these people have a new argument in their case against eviction,” Hunt contended.