1610: The date when humans inherited Earth

Scientists have pinpointed the year 1610 as the beginning of a new geological time period — the ‘Anthropocene’, or ‘Age of Humans’. How long will humans reign supreme over the planet?

A new geological time record started in the year 1610, research has suggested. The epoch is called the Anthropocene and comes after the Holocene period that started nearly two million years ago. Also known as the ‘Age of Humans’, this new period marks the time where humans have had an unprecedented impact on the world.

Why 1610? Scientists believe that the arrival of Europeans in the Americas — the so-called ‘New World’ — heralded a period of rapid global trade, meaning humans have drastically changed our planet. Christopher Columbus set off for America in 1492. 118 years later, in 1610, exchanges between continents had started to have their impact on Earth.

These changes were enormous. Crops were exchanged: maize from Central America travelled to Europe. A new root vegetable was discovered in South America, called a ‘potato’. Wheat and sugar cane crossed the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas. Whole species moved across continents, ‘setting Earth off on a new evolutionary trajectory’, in the words of Dr Simon Lewis, co-author of the study.

However, there was a sinister side to this mass exchange: with new people came new diseases. It is thought that around 50 million people in the Americas died of diseases from the ‘Old World’. Most of these people were farmers, and after they died their farmland grew back to the original vegetation, often forests. About half the weight of a tree is carbon, so this removed a huge amount of carbon from the atmosphere. 1610 has been identified as the time when CO2 levels dropped to their lowest point — and all because of humans.

That a whole epoch might be named after one creature is testament to the incredible impact Homo sapiens has had on the world. With the human population going through the seven billion barrier recently, humans look set to continue defining the course of geological history. The question everyone is asking is: ‘what next?’

Brave new world

The world has never seen a phenomenon quite like human beings. We can adapt to almost any surroundings. We are scarily intelligent, meaning that we will be able to cope with any kind of natural disaster. Humanity has even left its native planet to explore the moon. Geological periods last millions of years, many say, and the Anthropocene will be no different.

We are just a speck in the enormity of the universe, less confident humans warn. We may be uniquely intelligent, but our power is nothing compared to that of the Earth itself — would we really be able to survive another ice age? Or might we interfere with the planet so much that it becomes uninhabitable? Humans have been around for 0.01% of the Earth’s lifetime. One day soon our reign could come to an end.

You Decide

  1. Will the next age be the ‘Age of the Robots’?
  2. What do you think is the crucial turning point in human history?

Activities

  1. Make a timeline of human history identifying what you think are the most important changes to how we live.
  2. Research an era of the earth’s history, and make a presentation about it to your class.

Some People Say...

“Humans merely share the earth. We can only protect the land, not own it.”

Chief Seattle

What do you think?

Q & A

So are we officially in the ‘Anthropocene’?
Not yet. Some scientists still dispute that humans’ impact on the earth has been sufficient to have a whole era named after them. The group proposing the Anthropocene theory aims to have its proposal ready for the International Geological Congress in 2016. It would then be up to the International Commission on Stratigraphy to approve it.
Isn’t the date 1610 quite arbitrary?
In some ways, yes. There was no enormous shift in 1610, and 1609 was little different from 1611. However the Earth changes incredibly gradually so it is very hard to pinpoint an exact date. In comparison to most of the earth’s changes, the one between 1492 and 1610 was incredibly quick.

Word Watch

Epoch
Geological time is divided into several categories. First comes ages, then epochs. Above an epoch is a period (we are in the Quaternary period). Two or more periods are called an ‘era’, while above an era comes an eon — the longest division of geological time.
Anthropocene
The word comes from the Greek words ‘anthropos’ meaning man and ‘cene’ (derived from ‘kainos’) meaning new or recent.
Holocene
The Holocene epoch began 11,700 years ago. It has been identified with the current ‘warm period’ and started after the last ice age (during the Pleistocene epoch).
New World
One of the names used for the Americas and the surrounding islands. The European colonisation of the Americas expanded on the horizon of classical geographers whose world consisted only of Europe, Asia and Africa. This is now called the ‘Old World’.
Christopher Columbus
While many think Colombus was either English or Portuguese, he was in fact an Italian from Genoa. His ship, the Santa Maria, was the first to reach the New World.
Homo sapiens
The scientific (Latin) name for modern-day humans. It means ‘wise man’.

Subjects

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