When did the age of the Anthropocene – when human actions significantly changed the planet – begin, and why?
The age of the Anthropocene first began to significantly change the planet with the invention of farming. While it can be argued that events after this point, such as the Industrial Revolution during the 18th and 19th centuries, the effects of colonialism after 1645 and the post acceleration after 1945 had a higher impact, it was not the first significant change the planet underwent. The effect of farming changed the face of the planet permanently, with deforestation, soil erosion and the extinctions that came alongside farming due to increased demand for food. While the general period of the invention of farming is difficult to identify, due to differing start dates in different regions, this period arguably took place during 4000 BC to 1000 BC, although earlier start dates have been proposed.
Ancient farming was the beginning of the Anthropocene, causing undeniable change to the planet, with it permanently altering eco systems and the planet’s temperature and appearance. In Lyons analysis of plant fossils, the effect of humans is apparent in the sudden change to patterns of many plants and animals. These had remained the same for 300 million years in structure, however, 6000 years ago the pattern changed majorly. This change coincided with a growth in farming practices alongside growing populations that had a much larger demand for food. During this period 42% of 72% usable land was used for agriculture, which is only 4% less than what is used globally as of 2020. The large scale of agriculture during this period likely acted as a factor in the decline of megafauna between 12000 – 6000 years ago. Historian Smith argued for the relationship between megafauna extinction and the growth in agriculture in North America, stating how the decrease in grasslands and the prioritising of certain plants led to dwindling populations, and that economically agriculture became more attractive than hunting megafauna. This highlights the intense effect that early agriculture had on the planet’s biosystem.
The impact of agriculture throughout this period can be seen globally, showing the extremely high level of change the planet was undergoing in all continents during this period. Farming practices in numerous regions, such as China and in India, specifically East India, had major effects on the climate. The rice paddies functioning in China approximately 6000 years ago produced high levels of methane due to the large scale sites, that became more popular due to increasing populations. For example, Carbon Dioxide increased due to high rates of tree cutting and burning across North America and Europe and Asia. Due to the deforestation caused by burning, the Carbon Dioxide and other greenhouses gases were released into the air. According to Lyons, the widespread effects of farming can be seen throughout every region, even the Artic where the amount of Carbon Dioxide, an estimated 224-245 gigatonnes likely led to lower temperatures which caused glaciers to stop spreading, preventing another Ice Age. While the effects of the Anthropocene may not have been as extreme as later effects, this was the first significant impact of human beings on the earth, it set off a precedent of large scale farming to support the population. Ruddiman argues that “During this period, both carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) increased, probably as a result of the introduction of agrarian agriculture and land clearing in Eurasia”, which as stated by Salinger, caused a “forcing of climate”. This idea is arguably correct, which suggests that the first significant change in the planet, due to human actions, was the agricultural revolution in this period.
It could also be argued that the impacts of farming began even earlier than this, with the Neolithic Revolution that began 12000 years ago, and the move from hunter-gathering to limited food producing techniques. However, the scale on which populations were farming prior to approximately 6000 do not appear to have been large enough to cause a significant impact on the planet. Around 6500 BC saw the first large civilisation begin in Sumer, Mesopotamia, which highlighted the change in population sizes and need for consistent and permanent food resources in singular locations. In Sumer, farming was needed to support its approximately 1 million strong population. However, the intense use of the land led to a lack of soil quality, with rising salt levels, which eventually would help lead to the fall of the city. In this period other cities and large towns can be seen appearing throughout the globe, highlighting the increase in population size that took place in this period and the need this had to make more use of mono-crop farming.
After 1495 the European colonisation of North America, South America and Africa, alongside the forcible displacement of indigenous populations, caused major environmental changes. While this was intensely significant, it was not the beginning of significant changes to the planet. The “great dying” that took place during the 16th and 17th centuries had major planetary effects. With approximately 56 million indigenous Americans dying, accounting for 90% of the population, and the sudden change in concentrated plants being grown led to the extinction of numerous plant species. The mass movement of people from Africa to America and Northern Europe led to pollution of the oceans and many natural resources being exploited, such as mining for gold, other metals and minerals in Africa and South America. Despite these major impacts, high change due to human impact can be seen for millennias prior to this, with the start of mass farming. This very quickly led to large settlements and empires growing, such as the Roman Empire, making it not the first mass migration of people, and not the first significant case, while the ecological impact is somewhat unique, particularly on the scale it was done on. The Anthropocene did not start with this.
Alongside European expansion, other areas saw the impacts of trade on the environment. The impact of global trade routes was undeniably significant in its impact on the planet and led to large changes in the planet’s natural ecosystems and change to the landscape, but despite this it was not the first change the planet underwent. Throughout this period, localised change in the planet was very common, due to a much higher demand for natural ores and the mining that took place with them. The growth in trade routes took place over the span of several centuries and they did not reach their peak at the exact same times, however looking at the affects of trade and migration from the Mongol Empire and the British empire shows how trade and migration can considerably change the earth. It should also be noted that significant change to different areas of the planet took place at different points in time, with some regions such as Australia having lower level ecological change until moderately recently. The Mongol empire mined silver and other metals to trade and to utilise for themselves. This led to pollution in parts of China that is still apparent today. In Lake Erhai in 1300 AD the lead pollution peaked at 119 micrograms which is four times higher than the rate today which had led to permanent changes in sediment quality in the region.The high rate in production of harmful metals peaked during the Mongol Yuan dynasty during the 14th century.  While this was not a global effect on the planet, it shows localised high levels of Anthropocene and how the Middle Ages saw an increase in trade that furthered changing the planet in Eurasia.
The large impact of the industrial revolution and the post acceleration, both due to the growth in capitalism alongside growing populations is extremely visible in the planet’s current state. However, while the impact of deforestation since 1950 is notable, with 75 billion tonnes of carbon emissions being created. Meanwhile, before 1750, humans had already destroyed enough forest space to create 300 billion tonnes in emissions. While arguably it is worse to have removed 75 billion tones worth of forest in 70 years, it is not the first time mass removal of forests has taken place, highlighting it can not be considered the first significant impact. Another way in which post-acceleration has generated more planetary change is through the invention of the atomic bomb, the high levels of ionising radiation in areas such as Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan in August 1945 greatly altered the environment. It changed cell structure, leading plants no longer growing and mutating. In addition, the Chernobyl disaster, in 1986 in Northern Ukraine, caused because of human neglect at the nuclear plant, led to extreme changes in environment in 150000 sqm of land in Eastern Europe. However, this does show how human’s impact has significantly altered the planet in more recent years. But, the Anthropocene began alongside the growth in farming. Alongside this the impact of factories and transport creation of use has had detrimental effect on the planet, it is not the first significant change the planet had undergone. It does however, show how the Anthropocene is a gradual process that has worsened as the population has grown and technology has improved.
To conclude, while humans have been significantly, if not more significantly changing the planet since the beginning of farming, it is not the first major change the planet underwent. Arguably, the creation of mass farming 6000 years ago had major effects immediately and has led to permanent alterations in the planet’s function – such as the temperature being ten degrees Fahrenheit higher than it would be without ancient farming. While the impact of widening trade routes and later on the Industrial Revolution and post acceleration all had their own specific effects on the planet, the impact of early farming was high. The impact humans had on the planet in the pre-historic era also led to humans further interfering with the earth’s natural pattern. Lastly, it can be stated that humans have been altering the planet’s natural systems and state since the first humans appeared, however, this significant change is most obviously seen when the patterns of 300 million years were disrupted 6000 years ago.
Aubrey L. Hillman, Mark B. Abbott, JunQing Yu, Daniel J. Bain, and TzeHuey Chiou-Peng
Environmental Science & Technology 2015 49 (6), 3349-3357
Kathleen Lyons, S., Amatangelo, K., Behrensmeyer, A. et al. Holocene shifts in the assembly of plant and animal communities implicate human impacts. Nature 529, 80–83 (2016).
Klein Goldewijk, K., Beusen, A., & Janssen, P. (2010). Long-term dynamic modeling of global population and built-up area in a spatially explicit way: HYDE 3.1. The Holocene, 20(4), 565–573.
M. James Salinger, Agriculture’s influence on climate during the Holocene, Agricultural and Forest Meteorology, Volume 142, Issues 2–4, 2007
McNEILL, J. R. “Ecology, Epidemics and Empires: Environmental Change and the Geopolitics of Tropical America, 1600-1825.” Environment and History, vol. 5, no. 2, 1999, pp. 175–84. JSTOR
Ruddiman, W.F. (2003) The Anthropogenic Greenhouse Era Began Thousands of Years Ago. Climatic Change, 61, 261-293.
Smith, Vernon L. “The Primitive Hunter Culture, Pleistocene Extinction, and the Rise of Agriculture.” Journal of Political Economy, vol. 83, no. 4, 1975, pp. 727–55.
Stephen J. Vavrus, Feng He, John E. Kutzbach, William F. Ruddiman, Polychronis C. Tzedakis. Glacial Inception in Marine Isotope Stage 19: An Orbital Analog for a Natural Holocene Climate. Scientific Reports, 2018;
Thorkild Jacobsen; Robert M. Adams (1 November 1958). “Salt and Silt in Ancient Mesopotamian Agriculture: Progressive changes in soil salinity and sedimentation contributed to the breakup of past civilizations”. Science. 128 (3334): 1251–1258
University of Pittsburgh. “Ancient Mongol metallurgy an extreme polluter.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 6 March 2015.
 Kathleen Lyons, S., Amatangelo, K., Behrensmeyer, A. et al. Holocene shifts in the assembly of plant and animal communities implicate human impacts. Nature 529, 80–83 (2016).
 Klein Goldewijk, (2010). Long-term dynamic modeling of global population and built-up area in a spatially explicit way: HYDE 3.1. The Holocene, 20(4), 565–573.
 Smith, Vernon L. “The Primitive Hunter Culture, Pleistocene Extinction, and the Rise of Agriculture.” Journal of Political Economy, vol. 83, no. 4, 1975, pp. 727–55.
 Stephen J. Vavrus, Feng He, John E. Kutzbach, William F. Ruddiman, Polychronis C. Tzedakis. Glacial Inception in Marine Isotope Stage 19: An Orbital Analog for a Natural Holocene Climate. Scientific Reports, 2018;
 Ruddiman, W.F. (2003) The Anthropogenic Greenhouse Era Began Thousands of Years Ago. Climatic Change, 61, 261-293.
 M. James Salinger, Agriculture’s influence on climate during the Holocene, Agricultural and Forest Meteorology, Volume 142, Issues 2–4, 2007
 Thorkild Jacobsen; Robert M. Adams (1958). “Salt and Silt in Ancient Mesopotamian Agriculture: Progressive changes in soil salinity and sedimentation contributed to the breakup of past civilizations”. Science. 128 (3334): 1251–1258
 McNEILL, J. R. “Ecology, Epidemics and Empires: Environmental Change and the Geopolitics of Tropical America, 1600-1825.” Environment and History, vol. 5, no. 2, 1999, pp. 175–84.
 Aubrey L. Hillman, Mark B. Abbott, JunQing Yu, Daniel J. Bain, and TzeHuey Chiou-Peng
Environmental Science & Technology 2015
 University of Pittsburgh. “Ancient Mongol metallurgy an extreme polluter.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 6 March 2015.