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Academic & Professional Books  History & Other Humanities  Environmental History

Tropical Forests in Prehistory, History, and Modernity

By: Patrick Roberts(Author)
350 pages, 100 colour & b/w photos and colour & b/w illustrations
Information-dense and valuable, Tropical Forests in Prehistory, History, and Modernity argues that rainforests are not pristine ecosystems, but have been modified by humans for millennia.
Tropical Forests in Prehistory, History, and Modernity
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  • Tropical Forests in Prehistory, History, and Modernity ISBN: 9780198818496 Hardback Jan 2019 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 6 days
Price: £120.00
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About this book

In popular discourse, tropical forests are synonymous with 'nature' and 'wilderness'; battlegrounds between apparently pristine floral, faunal, and human communities, and the unrelenting industrial and urban powers of the modern world. It is rarely publicly understood that the extent of human adaptation to, and alteration of, tropical forest environments extends across archaeological, historical, and anthropological timescales. Tropical Forests in Prehistory, History, and Modernity is the first attempt to bring together evidence for the nature of human interactions with tropical forests on a global scale, from the emergence of hominins in the tropical forests of Africa to modern conservation issues. Following a review of the natural history and variability of tropical forest ecosystems, this book takes a tour of human, and human ancestor, occupation and use of tropical forest environments through time.

Far from being pristine, primordial ecosystems, Tropical Forests in Prehistory, History, and Modernity illustrates how our species has inhabited and modified tropical forests from the earliest stages of its evolution. While agricultural strategies and vast urban networks emerged in tropical forests long prior to the arrival of European colonial powers and later industrialization, this should not be taken as justification for the massive deforestation and biodiversity threats imposed on tropical forest ecosystems in the 21st century. Rather, such a long-term perspective highlights the ongoing challenges of sustainability faced by forager, agricultural, and urban societies in these environments, setting the stage for more integrated approaches to conservation and policy-making, and the protection of millennia of ecological and cultural heritage bound up in these habitats.


1: Introducing Tropical Forests in Prehistory, History, and Modernity
2: Tropical forests: Natural history, diversity, and potential as theatres of human adaptation and negotiation
3: Cradle under the canopy: The forest origins of our ape and hominin ancestors and the tropical forest forays of the genus Homo
4: Into the woods: Early Homo sapiens and tropical forest colonisation
5: Tropical bounties: The emergence of tropical forest agricultures
6: 'Ruins' of the forest: Social complexity and tropical cities
7: The last in a long line: Historical and ethnographic tropical forest encounters
8: The tropical 'Anthropocene': A modern battleground or long-term framework?
9: Forests of plenty?: Comparisons and conclusions

Customer Reviews (1)

  • An information-dense milestone in archaeology
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 1 Apr 2019 Written for Hardback

    Primaeval, pristine, playground of Indiana Jones, home to ancient ruins and primitive tribes – nothings says wilderness more than tropical rainforests. They have had a firm grip on our collective imagination for centuries as the antithesis of civilization. But after reading archaeologist Patrick Roberts’s Tropical Forests in Prehistory, History, and Modernity, it seems my introduction is a load of lyrical rubbish. Synthesizing an enormous body of scientific literature, this book dispels the Victorian-era explorer-mystique to reveal a picture that is far more fascinating.

    In my recent review of The Ethnobotany of Eden I already touched on what is the central thesis of this book: far from pristine wilderness untouched by humans, rainforests have been shaped by us for many millennia. After introducing the sheer diversity of habitats that hide under the catch-all term rainforest, the book takes a chronological approach, beginning with hominin evolution.

    The dominant narrative in palaeoanthropology has been that as humans evolved, they came down from the trees and onto the plains of Africa. A shift to upright walking on two legs is often cited as one line of evidence, but morphological and observational studies on apes increasingly show that bipedalism is common in forest environments. Analyses of fossil teeth, both the chemical composition of enamel and patterns of microwear, have been used to reconstruct the diet of our ancestors (see The Tales that Teeth Tell and Evolution’s Bite). But these results, too, do not prove equivocally that humans shifted exclusively to savannah habitat. Roberts makes the case that much research is pointing towards our ancestors spending most of their time in woodland-grassland mosaics.

    Once our ancestors left Africa, a popular explanation for their dispersal has been the pursuit of fish and other marine resources, which saw them following the coastline of Asia to then both island-hop through Southeast Asia and the Pacific, and trek over the Bering Land Bridge to colonise North and South America (see Fishing). Rainforests would only have been colonised during the Holocene, from 10,000 years ago onwards. But recent archaeological, palaeobotanical, and palaeoenvironmental work in the tropics that Roberts reviews here instead shows humans occupying rainforests from at least 45,000 years ago, possibly even much earlier.

    The archaeological meat of the book comes with chapters 5 and 6, which survey a vast body of work that is showing two things. First, that rainforests have seen millennia of agricultural practices that blur the line between foraging and farming, with practices such as tree cropping, controlled burning to create mosaic patches, corralling of wild animals such as turtles, and the tending to and moving around of various food plants (see e.g. The Maya Forest Garden). James C. Scott has similarly argued that, for a long time, agriculture was a small part of a larger portfolio of different strategies to make a living (see Against the Grain), but he did not specifically mention the possible role of tropical rainforests, focusing instead on the Middle East.

    Second, this form of proto-agriculture allowed for the existence of large, but low-density urban areas. Roberts takes the reader on a tour of forest ruins in Mesoamerica (the Maya), Cambodia, Sri Lanka, the Amazon, and the Pacific to show the many different forms that this took. One technological development, in particular, has produced spectacular findings. LiDAR, or 3D laser scanning, is a survey method that allows visualisation of structures hidden under vegetation and has revealed the sheer scope, size, and complexity of many jungle ruins, lending support to the idea that these areas once housed tens of thousands of people.

    Given all of the above, how, then, did rainforests come to symbolise pristine wilderness? In short, because history is written by the winners. Our historical narrative is inherently Eurocentric, which, some argue, can be traced back all the way to how the ancient Romans and Greeks saw the world (see A History of the World in Twelve Maps). But it was really with the exploration from the time of Columbus onwards that infectious disease, warfare, and slavery killed millions and largely eradicated their history. In its stead, we created first the myth of the noble savage, a relic of past human adaptation (though see The Myth of the Noble Savage for a critical appraisal), and more recently the idea of indigenous groups as active conservationists. Roberts baulks at both these ideas, arguing they paint Indigenous people in a corner as passive subjects living in isolation, threatened by colonialism and, nowadays, capitalism.

    Instead, with this book Roberts builds a well-supported case that these groups have been shaping and manipulating rainforests for millennia. Now, this is in no way is intended to down-play more recent destruction and he is at pains to clarify that this is not a carte-blanche for their current unchecked exploitation by Western forces such as the logging and mining industry. But he does think that the impact of Indigenous communities differs only in degree, not in kind (quantitatively, not qualitatively). This, he argues, should be taken on board when trying to define when the Anthropocene started, a discussion that has, so far, largely revolved around geology and stratigraphy (see The Anthropocene as a Geological Time Unit). More importantly, it points towards the value of Indigenous knowledge, showing how it is possible to live in these areas without destroying them.

    The book makes good use of photos, graphs, and maps, though a minor niggle I have is their reproduction. Many are quite small, and their resolution betrays digital rather than offset printing, sometimes obscuring details. Why many of them have been printed in greyscale when colour is used for some others is another curiosity. Given the high price of the book, it is a shame the publisher did not include a colour plate section.

    That aside, Tropical Forests in Prehistory, History, and Modernity is an incredibly valuable and information-dense book that reviews a vast body of literature (I estimate 1500 citations) from fields such as palaeontology, archaeology, anthropology, and ethnology. The above outline I have given only touches on the main arguments, but there are many, many more interesting findings in here. The book is scholarly and will require your full attention, but is certainly not stuffy. Despite presenting a revisionist account, the tone is far from combative or polemic, instead carefully building a patient and exhaustive argument. To my mind, this is a major contribution to archaeology that should be a reference for years to come.
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Patrick Roberts is Group Leader of the Stable Isotope Laboratory at the Department of Archaeology, Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History. He has pioneered the use of stable isotope analysis of human fossils for reconstructing the tropical forest adaptations of our species during its dispersal beyond Africa. Patrick has a broader interest in studying the time-depth of human impacts on tropical forests – now the most threatened terrestrial ecosystems after the polar ice-caps – and how this has varied across space and time. He is committed to current UNESCO initiatives that bring together archaeologists and anthropologists to discuss potential solutions for the conservation of ecological and cultural heritage in tropical forests today.

By: Patrick Roberts(Author)
350 pages, 100 colour & b/w photos and colour & b/w illustrations
Information-dense and valuable, Tropical Forests in Prehistory, History, and Modernity argues that rainforests are not pristine ecosystems, but have been modified by humans for millennia.
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