Jan 30, 2022,03:21pm EST|125 views
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A comprehensive but flawed examination of the importance of tropical forests to the evolution of life throughout the millennia and of man’s relationship with tropical forests
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Tropical forests have lived on Earth for longer than 400 million years, making them some of the oldest terrestrial environments on the planet. Throughout their long history, forests have survived variations in climate as well as huge tectonic movements of the land they’ve been rooted in. In turn, tropical forests have shaped the planet’s atmosphere, its water cycle and its soils, and even influenced the evolution of life, from the appearance of the first flowering plants and the first four-legged terrestrial animals to the evolution of the dinosaurs as well as the appearance of many of the mammalian lineages and their survival to modern times.
As you might expect, tropical forests have also strongly influenced the evolution of humans and our closest relatives, welcoming us into a lush jungle home before we went on to invade most of the planet’s landmasses between 300,000 and 12,000 years ago. Contrary to popular belief, humans did not emerge first on the savannahs, but in tropical forests. In fact, the evidence shows that humans learned to live sustainably in tropical forests, as is made plain from archaeological discoveries of the most successful pre-industrial urban populations to have ever existed. Indeed, even many of our foods and domesticated animals originated in tropical forests. Or so argues palaeoarchaeologist Patrick Roberts, a Research Group Leader at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History and a 2021 National Geographic Explorer, in his book, Jungle: How Tropical Forests Shaped the World – and Us (Penguin Books / Viking Press, 2021: Amazon US / Amazon UK).
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Eye-opening and provocative, this book provides a comprehensive overview of the planet’s tropical forests (or maybe, one could argue, it presents the history of the world from the viewpoint of tropical forests), how they made the planet habitable, recounting their evolution through each period, their influence over the evolution of life on Earth, and lately, how people use and abuse them. In my opinion, the first five chapters were particularly interesting and insightful, detailing the importance of tropical forests to the evolution of life on Earth throughout each geologic age.
After establishing the history of tropical forests, Dr Roberts then devotes the middle part of the book to the role of tropical forests in human evolution. His main argument here is that people have lived in tropical forests for hundreds of thousands of years and they even built large jungle cities. He attacks the long-standing notion that our ancestors left the trees to live on savannahs, pointing out that early hominins clearly spent less time in trees than, say, chimpanzees, but the evidence indicates that our ancestors lived in many sorts of habitats, from open savannah and grassland to dense forest.Forbes InnovationREAD MORE2021 HDD Industry MarketAnd Projectionshttps://imasdk.googleapis.com/js/core/bridge3.496.0_en.html#goog_1145618140https://imasdk.googleapis.com/js/core/bridge3.496.0_en.html#goog_724611459https://imasdk.googleapis.com/js/core/bridge3.496.0_en.html#goog_2019991240
In the last portion of the book, Dr Roberts argues that our view that people cannot survive in the jungle without destroying it is an artifact of colonialism and the destruction that accompanies it. He explains how globalization of European farming methods, especially cattle ranching, has increased deforestation throughout the world. Additionally, Spanish and European methods of mining for gold and silver has poisoned and destroyed the environment in many tropical regions. Dr Roberts also explores the incredibly destructive palm oil industry and how it harms Indigenous peoples as well as the environment.
Can we look to our ancestors’ land management practices for answers to our current crisis? Maybe. On one hand, local production of food and sustainable agroforestry are reasonable practices that should be enacted everywhere. On the other hand, considering our current outsized population and our stubborn and illogical insistence on a constantly expanding economy (ignoring the fact that we live on a finite planet with finite resources), some pressures are simply not sustainable without a huge overhaul of the global economy and our philosophies.
This 405-page book comes with an extensive — and I do mean extensive — Notes and Sources for each chapter, which fills 67 pages at the end of the book with many cited references in fine print, followed by a detailed 27-page Index (also filled with fine print). I was surprised and disappointed by some of the factual errors in this book, especially in view of the astounding amount of research cited. The most egregious error in my opinion is the author’s claim that birds are the most diverse vertebrates on Earth, when in fact, it is the fishes.
Overall, this ambitious book presents a beautifully written overview of the evolutionary history of tropical forests in its first five chapters, followed by nine increasingly bleak (but generally factually accurate) chapters that present a number of interesting but controversial ideas for how we might safeguard tropical forests and live sustainably in them by better understanding how earlier Indigenous societies did things. Although the book’s important message may discourage some readers, most students and non-specialists will learn a lot about the critical importance of tropical forests from reading this book.
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NOTE: I received a hardback copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest, unbiased review. Additionally, as an Amazon Associate, I may earn micropayments from qualifying Amazon purchases made through links in this piece.GrrlScientistFollow
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