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Journal Article

Tropical trees as time capsules of anthropogenic activity


Weigel,  D
Department Molecular Biology, Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology, Max Planck Society;

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Caetano Andrade, V., Clement, C., Weigel, D., Trumbore, S., Boivin, N., Schöngart, J., et al. (2020). Tropical trees as time capsules of anthropogenic activity. Trends in Plant Science, 25(4), 369-380. doi:10.1016/j.tplants.2019.12.010.

Cite as: https://hdl.handle.net/21.11116/0000-000A-5E19-2
Tropical forests now known to be key sites of ancient human occupation and modification from the Late Pleistocene, intensifying into the Late Holocene.
Dendrochronology and radiocarbon dating demonstrate that living tropical trees can provide ‘stratigraphic records’ of human influences on growth patterns over the past millennium.
Stable isotope analysis of tree rings identify climate-related influences on tree growth, enabling differentiation of natural- versus human-induced forest disturbance.
Genetic studies of modern trees can reconstruct impacts of past human activity on the population structure of species that have been deforested (‘selected against’) or promoted (‘selected for’) by humans.
Tropical trees are not just key organisms for global climate, biodiversity, and carbon stock but also represent surviving ‘time capsules’ of cultural heritage.

After the ice caps, tropical forests are globally the most threatened terrestrial environments. Modern trees are not just witnesses to growing contemporary threats but also legacies of past human activity. Here, we review the use of dendrochronology, radiocarbon analysis, stable isotope analysis, and DNA analysis to examine ancient tree management. These methods exploit the fact that living trees record information on environmental and anthropogenic selective forces during their own and past generations of growth, making trees living archaeological ‘sites’. The applicability of these methods across prehistoric, historic, and industrial periods means they have the potential to detect evolving anthropogenic threats and can be used to set conservation priorities in rapidly vanishing environments.