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Anthropocene in the New World?

Christopher Columbus up to his old tricks Christopher Columbus up to his old tricks Everett Historical
12 Mar
As the debate over the Anthropocene – the proposed new geological age – continues, a new study argues the epoch actually started in 1610

First the Anthropocene went nuclear, now it just might go Renaissance.

Scientists at UCL have released a new paper arguing that human actions started the Anthropocene epoch as early as 1610.

Two criteria must be met to define a new geological epoch: Long-lasting changes to Earth must be documented, and a global environmental change captured in natural material, such as rock or sediment. This is known as the golden spike.

Two golden spikes over the past 50,000 years have been proposed for the Anthropocene. The first suggested epoch is the 1960s, when fallout from the first nuclear tests went global. The new contender is 1610, a century after the collision of New and Old Worlds.

UCL’s scientists argue that Europe’s discovery of America was followed by an increase in global trade that moved species across continents and oceans, so reordering life on Earth.

‘The Anthropocene probably began when species jumped continents, starting when the Old World met the New. We humans are now a geological power in our own right – as Earth-changing as a meteorite strike,’ says Simon Lewis, lead author on the study.

hondius-map-1610How the world looked to Europe in 1609 [Image: Jodocus Hondius, Princeton University collection]

As an example, scientists point to fossil records that show maize, a South American species, appearing in European marine sediment in 1600.

Carbon dioxide also dipped in 1610, an event captured in Antarctic ice core records, as Europeans arrived in America.

Colonisation combined with European disease wiped out around 50 million indigenous people in the New World. This caused an abrupt end to large-scale farming in the New World, resulting in forest regrowth. As the forests regrew atmospheric CO2 levels dropped.

UCL’s scientists have named this drop the ‘Orbis Spike’. ‘Orbis’ means ‘world’ in Latin, and the term was chosen to show that this golden spike came about as once disconnected people were linked.

FlorentineCodex BK12 F54 smallpoxIndigenous South Americas struck with smallpox. Florentine Codex 1545–1590 [Image: Wikicommons]

1610 was a rocky year for Europeans in the New World, too. English colonists in Jamestown, Virginia were starving and the colony was almost abandoned. Back in the Old World, Galileo was opening up even wider frontiers than Columbus. In January that year, he first observed Jupiter’s four largest moons.

‘Historically, the collision of the Old and New Worlds marks the beginning of the modern world. Many historians regard agricultural imports into Europe from the vast new lands of the Americas, alongside the availability of coal, as the two essential precursors of the Industrial Revolution, which in turn unleashed further waves of global environmental changes,’ says Lewis.

Lewis and his co-authors discount nuclear tests as a golden spike because although a nuclear war could cause dramatic changes to the Earth, fallout from nuclear tests has not done so.

The industrial revolution in the 18th century is another contender as a golden spike, but UCL’s researchers argue that the industrial revolution was a local and not a global event.

‘A more wide-spread recognition that human actions are driving far-reaching changes to the life-supporting infrastructure of Earth will have implications for our philosophical, social, economic and political views of our environment,’ says Mark Maslin, a geologist from UCL who worked on the study.

‘But we should not despair, because the power that humans wield is unlike any other force of nature, it is reflexive and therefore can be used, withdrawn or modified. The first stage of solving our damaging relationship with our environment is recognising it,’ he adds.

A decision making process on formally recognising the Anthropocene will start when the Anthropocene Working Group of the Subcommission of Quaternary Stratigraphy makes recommendations in 2016. April’s Geographical magazine features a round-up of views on the Anthropocene.

Read the UCL team’s proposal in Nature.


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