The archaeology of land abandonment

According to a recent article published in Science, land abandonment and rural depopulation is accelerating rapidly in the world today. The forces driving it are the same as those driving migration and urbanization, including climate change, economic development, demographic transitions, and increases in the labor productivity of farming. A large fraction of this abandoned land is agricultural, but it also includes pastures, forestry areas, mines, factories, and settlements. As the amount of abandoned land grows, researchers are recognizing the need to develop a vision that balances biodiversity conservation, ecosystem services, and human livelihoods on these lands.

It seems to me that archaeology has much to offer this discussion, as in many parts of the world the archaeological record is primarily abandoned land, and it preserves evidence for subsequent ecological succession and human use of these same locations. Archaeologists have not always thought about what happened at a site after the inhabitants left, but there often is evidence of that, from evidence of return visits by descendants to observations of current plant and animal communities in that location. In one study, for example, Bruce Pavlik and colleagues found that plant species biodiversity was systematically higher at archaeological sites, aka abandoned land, in the Bears’ Ears National Monument in Utah. Another study by Stephens and colleagues shows that in fact most land that non-archaeologists consider to be wilderness today was in fact inhabited in the past and is therefore “abandoned land” in the big picture. And archaeological settlement pattern studies reveal that in many past societies people lived in environments where abandoned settlements and agricultural lands were commonplace. In short, abandoned land appears to represent a contemporary issue for which the archaeological record can provide substantial input regarding effective human responses.

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