Study Offers Earliest Evidence of Humans Changing Ecosystems with Fire

May 5, 2021

Researchers, including Baylor University paleoclimatologist, say the shores of Lake Malawi in eastern Africa show early humans were ecosystem engineers

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WACO, Texas (May 5, 2021) – Mastery of fire has given humans dominance over the natural world. A Yale-led study – with contributions from a Baylor University paleoclimatologist – provides the earliest evidence to date of ancient humans significantly altering entire ecosystems with flames.

The study, published May 5 in the journal Science Advances, combines archaeological evidence — dense clusters of stone artifacts dating as far back as 92,000 years ago — with paleoenvironmental data on the northern shores of Lake Malawi in eastern Africa to document that early humans were ecosystem engineers. They used fire in a way that prevented regrowth of the region’s forests, creating a sprawling bushland that exists today.

“This is the earliest evidence I have seen of humans fundamentally transforming their ecosystem with fire,” said lead author Jessica Thompson, assistant professor of anthropology at Yale. “It suggests that by the Late Pleistocene, humans were learning to use fire in truly novel ways. In this case, their burning caused replacement of the region’s forests with the open woodlands you see today.”

Steven Forman, Ph.D., professor of geosciences at Baylor University, was one of 27 researchers involved in the study from institutions in the United States, Africa, Europe, Asia and Australia.

“As a paleoclimatologist, I’m keenly interested in how humans have altered environments and climate on many spatial and time scales. There are poignant parallels — at a global scale — on how human-induced climate change in the 21st century has spawned fires in North America, the Amazon and Australia that threaten sustainability,” Forman said.

Thompson led the archaeological work in collaboration with the Malawi Department of Museums and Monuments, David Wright of the University of Oslo, who led efforts to date the study’s archaeological sites, and Sarah Ivory of Penn State, who led the paleoenvironmental analyses. Forman provided the time control, ages for human habitation and developed the statistical analyses of the ages to indicate the timing of human activity. In addition, he participated in the hypothesis testing on the role of humans – by the massive use of fire – in altering the surrounding landscape adjacent to Lake Malawi.

The artifacts examined by the researchers are of the type produced across Africa in the Middle Stone Age, a period dating back at least 315,000 years. The earliest modern humans made their appearance during this period, with the African archaeological record showing significant advances in cognitive and social complexity.

Thompson and Wright logged several field seasons of archaeological work in the region before a conversation with Ivory helped them make sense of the patterns in their data. The researchers discovered that the regional archaeological record, its ecological changes and the development of alluvial fans near Lake Malawi — an accumulation of sediment eroded from the region’s highland — dated to the same period of origin, suggesting that they were connected.

Lake Malawi’s water levels have fluctuated drastically over the ages. During the lake’s driest periods, the last of which ended about 85,000 years ago, it diminished into two small, saline bodies of water. The lake recovered from these arid stretches and its levels have remained high ever since, according to the study.

The archaeological data were collected from more than 100 pits excavated across hundreds of kilometers of the alluvial fan that developed during this time of steady lake levels. The paleoenvironmental data are based on counts of pollen and charcoal that settled to the floor of the lakebed and were later recovered in a long sediment core drilled from a modified barge.

According to the researchers, the data revealed that a spike in charcoal accumulation occurred shortly before the flattening of the region’s species richness — the number of distinct species inhabiting it. Despite the consistently high lake levels, which implies greater stability in the ecosystem, the species richness went flat following the last arid period based on information from fossilized pollen sampled from the lakebed, the study found.

The increase in archaeological sites after the last arid period, paired with the spike in charcoal and absence of forest, suggests that people were manipulating the ecosystem with fire, the researchers conclude. The scale of their environmental impact over the long term is something typically associated with farmers and herders, rather than hunter-gatherers. This suggests early ecological manipulation on par with modern people and may also explain why the archaeological record formed.

Previous transitions from dry to wet conditions in the region didn’t yield a similar alluvial fan and were not preceded by the same charcoal spike, the researchers noted.

It’s not clear why people were burning the landscape, Thompson said. It’s possible that they were experimenting with controlled burns to produce mosaic habitats conducive to hunting and gathering, a behavior documented among hunter-gatherers. It could be that their fires burned out of control, or that there were simply a lot of people burning fuel in their environment that provided for warmth, cooking or socialization, she explained.

“One way or another, it’s caused by human activity,” she said. “It shows early people, over a long period of time, took control over their environment rather than being controlled by it. They changed entire landscapes, and for better or for worse that relationship with our environments continues today.”

This work was funded by the Australian Research Council, the National Geographic-Waitt Foundation, the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the University of Queensland Archaeological Field School, the Korean Research Foundation Global Research Network, Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, Emory University and the Belmont Forum.


Baylor University is a private Christian University and a nationally ranked research institution. The University provides a vibrant campus community for more than 19,000 students by blending interdisciplinary research with an international reputation for educational excellence and a faculty commitment to teaching and scholarship. Chartered in 1845 by the Republic of Texas through the efforts of Baptist pioneers, Baylor is the oldest continually operating University in Texas. Located in Waco, Baylor welcomes students from all 50 states and more than 90 countries to study a broad range of degrees among its 12 nationally recognized academic divisions.