Understanding how humans have shaped landscapes can guide us in the future

‘We need to embrace the fact that humans are entangled with the material and non-human environment’

What do we really mean when we talk about “wild nature”? And how well do our notions of wilderness reflect the ecological realities of our landscapes?

An idea lingers among scientists, conservationists and policy-makers that human transformations of nature have been recent and inherently destructive. But studies of human-ecological interactions through history demonstrate that we have been shaping landscapes for more than 12,000 years.

Precisely when humans began to have a significant planetary effect is subject to debate. The Industrial Revolution, Cold War nuclear testing and the Neolithic agricultural revolution have all been proposed as benchmarks.

In Ireland the end of the last ice age around 13,000 years ago serves as a potential starting point towards the ecological and cultural assemblages we see today. Plants and animals repopulating the land were closely followed by humans.


“We were here as soon as the oak trees and the wolves and the bears arrived,” says campaigner and author Pádraic Fogarty of the Irish Wildlife Trust. “[The] idea that humans are part of the ecosystem surely resonates more in Ireland than it does in other places.”

Archaeological investigations throughout the world have revealed many ecologically-valued landscapes developed as a consequence of past human activity.

The Burren in Co Clare is an example of a natural system that has evolved with the influence of humankind. Ground exposed by the retreat of the last glaciers was dominated by hazel woodland. But humans began to shape the landscape from the Stone Age and cleared much of it for farming during the Bronze Age.

Grazing and climatic changes led to the loss of vegetation cover and soil, crafting the often bare limestone scene that we have today. But the inhospitable hinterland became host to a rich community of alpine and Mediterranean plants that characterise a cultural landscape which is now world famous.

In one sense the loss of native woodland could be considered a blow to Irish wilderness. But the Burren is also a thriving and unique natural system that balances human activity and ecological process.

Pristine nature

The idea that humans have been moulding landscapes for millennia is one that contends with notions of wilderness as an idealised vision of pristine nature.

"These notions put humanity over here and nature over there," says Paddy Woodworth, author and journalist whose recent book explores the possibilities of nature restoration in the face of climate change.

The past provides insights into how we emerged as a planet-transforming species, holding information that we might draw upon to shape a sustainable future

“It seems to me much healthier that we are engaged in a relationship – hopefully a responsible and respectful relationship – with the environment. But a relationship that inevitably has impact.”

Debates around the concept of wilderness are polarised. Conservationists use the frame of wilderness to protect critical strongholds of biodiversity and ecological refugia, but wilderness preservation agendas can lead to the displacement and alienation of local communities, restricting livelihoods, access to resources and cultural heritage bound in landscape.

"Wild does not exist out of the human domain so we need to embrace the fact that humans are entangled with the material and non-human environment," says Dr Katja Bruisch, assistant professor of environmental history at Trinity College Dublin.

“Once we acknowledge this and make it more consciously part of our thinking and our acting, then it becomes more of an act of deciding which kinds of landscapes and natures that we want,” she says.

The concept of wilderness protection originated during early colonisation by Europeans. The creation of protected areas excluded local people, effectively stealing land and dismissing their knowledge of it. It relied upon a fixed image of nature, disregarding its dynamism.

This has been the case in the creation of many of the celebrated national parks of the United States and African nations, Fogarty adds. He argues that the EU Habitats Directive, implemented in Ireland since 1992, has some contemporary similarities:

“What actually happened in Ireland was the scientists drew the lines on the map and politicians then gave those lines legal definitions and meaning. And for the people who lived within those areas all it meant to them was a list of things they weren’t allowed to do.

“So farmers ended up with land that was circled off – they didn’t know why, they certainly didn’t get any benefit from it, so it drove a wedge.”

Rather than exclude people from conservation discussions, Bruisch suggests we recognise how human interactions have shaped landscapes through time. Such historical understanding could form the basis for moving forward in a sustainable manner that balances human needs with ecological protection.

But merging human judgement with ecological process does come with its complications, she believes. “One questions is who gets to decide how a protected landscape should look, and another question is what does protection actually mean? Does it mean we drive out all human activity or is it about finding a balance that involves local communities?”

Protecting cultural heritage and social needs alongside ecological systems should be possible, according to a growing body of research. Humankind has a vast and expanding eco-cultural knowledge accumulated over millennia.

The past provides insights into how we emerged as a planet-transforming species, holding information that we might draw upon to shape a sustainable future. We can look at agriculture and urbanisation, which currently cover 37 per cent and 2.8 per cent of global land respectively.

Many past societies engaged in agricultural intensification. Some, like the Maya, Anasazi, and the Nordic settlers of Greenland, collapsed. Others thrived, and both eventualities give an insight to the sustainability and vulnerability of agricultural systems. The aforementioned Nordic settlers arguably met their demise due to a failure to adapt to their new conditions, superimposing practices from their homeland on an incompatible landscape.

More than half of the world’s current population of over 7 billion people live in cities. While many current models of urbanisation are inherently unsustainable, examples exist from the past that give perspectives on resilience and environmental sustainability.

Byzantine Constantinople, for example, incorporated urban agriculture that contributed to food security even during multi-year sieges. Periurban agriculture was incorporated in the expansion of Beijing in the 1950s, with 70 per cent of non-staple foods produced within the city itself. This has led to the local production of high quality perishable foods such as vegetables and milk.

Millennia-old qanat water-management systems found across the Middle East, north Africa and south Asia offer a practical solution to water supply problems in arid environments. Delivering a reliable flow of water, these systems are resistant to environmental changes whilst having low costs and technological demands.

By challenging classical ideas of nature and conservation, we might employ the past as a guide to a dynamic future

Taking into consideration lessons from the past might involve a major shift in the way that we think about our relationship with the natural, or more-than-human world.

“I think if we can make that kind of ethical leap to acknowledge that we are a part of nature, that the fate of nature is our fate, and that the non-human world has a right to exist, I think you’re looking at a drastically different ethic and a whole system in which to live,” Fogarty says.


Woodworth emphasises moving beyond classical ideas of how nature should look and accepting our part in its evolution. “I think we always need to interrogate what we think we see when we look at a landscape… when we talk about conservation and restoration, we will do it better if we understand the deep history of a landscape much better.”

In scrutinising the idea of pristine wilderness, he does not underestimate the value of preserving natural habitats for their own sake and as repositories of biodiversity. Maintaining areas of ecological importance in a balanced manner can help to restore other degraded areas.

We might, therefore, visualise a mosaic of land-use practices that allow human societies to thrive while supporting the ecological systems that underpin them. By challenging classical ideas of nature and conservation, we might employ the past as a guide to a dynamic future, rather than aiming at a forgone snapshot of an idealised landscape.

The Burren relies on human influence to prosper in the manner that it is has been shaped. The visions underlying it provide a blueprint that might be replicated across Ireland. Perhaps when we recognise the entanglement of landscape with human history in a constructive light, we might see a renewed optimism in the way that we view our ecological impact.

Fogarty adds: “We have to be more flexible and adaptive and more tolerant of change than we have been – and I think that’s quite exciting.”