The ‘Green Hell’ of our ancestors

Green Hell

Tropical rainforests were once thought unliveable but scientists, including Liverpool John Moores University’s Professor Chris Hunt, are showing that our human ancestors lived in these conditions, and in fact the forests themselves are long-term documents of human action.

Professor Hunt, who is an environmental archaeologist, has looked at pollen and other tiny fossils to find out how humans lived and thrived in these areas. The use of pollen opens up a whole field of data unaffected by acidic rainforest soils that eat away bone, whereas tools and buildings made from organic materials like wood and bamboo rot quickly in warm, humid forests.

The research suggested that people started burning the forest, to promote useful “forest-edge” plants like yams and attract animals like bearded pigs to make hunting easier some 50,000 years ago. About 10,000 years ago pollen and other small fossils show that humans were selecting and importing useful species from other islands.

Professor Hunt, who teaches Geography focussed around changing environments and past human-environment interactions, shares these important pollen studies on a new module in Geoforensics and in the Environmental Change module.

He commented:

“Knowing that people helped to shape today’s rainforest is incredibly important for conservation as often indigenous people are removed from nature reserves, when their knowledge is actually needed to help make the forests sustainable. For example many rainforest people use a fantastic number of plants for food and medicine. As the global rainforests disappear, together with these important plants, this knowledge and the opportunities of new drugs and foods are becoming lost to the world.”

Professor Hunt was interviewed by Science Magazine following his talk at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.

Environment is a key research area within the School of Natural Sciences and Psychology. Our research looks at some of the important issues affecting life on Earth today.


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