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Intensifying Weathering and Land Use in Iron Age Central Africa

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Science  09 Mar 2012:
Vol. 335, Issue 6073, pp. 1219-1222
DOI: 10.1126/science.1215400

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A Price of Civilization

Large expanses of rainforests in parts of Central Africa were abruptly replaced by savannas around 3000 years ago, presumably because of climate change. However, that succession occurred at a time of expansion by Bantu tribes, from near the border of present-day Cameroon and Nigeria to the south and east, in a migration that brought with it agriculture and iron-smelting technologies. Bayon et al. (p. 1219, published online 9 February; see the Perspective by Dupont) analyzed the nearby marine sedimentary record and found that chemical weathering in Central Africa also increased markedly at this time. This increase in weathering could have been caused by forest clearing by the Bantu to create arable land and to fuel their smelters, rather than climate change alone.

Abstract

About 3000 years ago, a major vegetation change occurred in Central Africa, when rainforest trees were abruptly replaced by savannas. Up to this point, the consensus of the scientific community has been that the forest disturbance was caused by climate change. We show here that chemical weathering in Central Africa, reconstructed from geochemical analyses of a marine sediment core, intensified abruptly at the same period, departing substantially from the long-term weathering fluctuations related to the Late Quaternary climate. Evidence that this weathering event was also contemporaneous with the migration of Bantu-speaking farmers across Central Africa suggests that human land-use intensification at that time had already made a major impact on the rainforest.

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