MadSci Network: Evolution

Re: About the distribution of precolumbian human populations.

Date: Mon Jul 29 11:30:07 2002
Posted By: Steve Mack, Post-doc/Fellow, Molecular and Cell Biology
Area of science: Evolution
ID: 1021136231.Ev

Thanks for the interesting question Milton. I think that the answer depends on how you define early when you use the term "early humans." I am going to assume that your question pertains to anatomically modern humans (as opposed to archaic human species like Homo neanderthalis, Homo antecessor, or Homo erectus). Let's take a look at how long modern people have lived in the various inhabited regions of the world. You probably know some of this already, but I think that this will put things in perspective. The following table will list the colonized region, the approximate amount of time (as of 2002) that has passed since people arrived at that region (but not since they got sight of it) based on the available evidence, and some pertinent facts about that region, for perspective.

RegionAge of Human PresenceComments
Africa130,000 - 200,000 yearsOur species originated in Africa.
Asia100,000 - 120,000 yearsThese earliest dates are for southwestern Asia. Homo erectus had been southern Asia for 400,000 years, and Neanderthal-like people for several hundred thousand years as well.
Australia60,000 yearsGiven the geological record from this time, people would have had to have made two water crossings (traversing the waters around Western Austronesia and Melanesia in boats) to reach Australia from Asia, which suggests that they had the technology to reach many distant places.
Europe50,000 yearsNeanderthals were living quite well in Europe for 150,000 years before modern humans arrived.
North and South America15,000 - 25,000 yearsThese dates are still somewhat controversial, but there seems to be evidence for a fairly old presence of modern humans in the Americas.
All continental land masses were colonized more than 10,000 years ago.
Greenland4,500 yearsColonized from north America.
Fiji3,500 yearsFiji is basically the easternmost edge of Melanesia, and was sort of the "staging area" for the colonization of Polynesia.
Polynesian Islands2,000 yearsThe most remote islands (New Zealand and Easter Island, below) were colonized more recently.
Madagascar1,500 yearsAmazingly, Madagascar was first colonized by people from Indonesia, and not from Africa.
Easter Island (Polynesia)1,200 yearsEasternmost of the Polynesian Islands
Iceland1,100 yearsIceland may have been discovered 600 years earlier.
New Zealand / Chatham Islands (Polynesia)1000 yearsSouthernmost of the Polynesian Islands
All large island land masses were colonized at least 1000 years ago.
Azores Islands560 years2,300 square kilometers. Colonized from Europe.
Novaya Zemlya (aka "New Land")400 years81,000 square kilometers. A polar station was established in 1900, but I doubt that this counts as a real settlement.
Svalbard Arkipelet (aka "Cold Coast" Archipelago)370 years63,000 square kilometers. A permanent mining settlement was established in 1906. The population is about 2,300, and there seem to be several population centers, so this island might count as having truly been settled.
Kerguelen 230 years6,700 square kilometers. Various types of scientists have lived on Kerguelen since 1949, but it is not clear if this island is habitable without outside support.
South Georgia Island230 years3,800 square kilometers. Like Kerguelen, South Georgia Island was visited by Captain Cook, and was identified as part of the wave of Brithish Imperial exploration. As far as I can tell, no one lives on South Georiga, but there are science and weather stations there.
Tristan da Cunha190 years100 square kilometers (smaller than the city of San Francisco). Colonized from Europe and Africa. Population, approximately 300.
Franz Josef Land130 years12,000 square kilometers. A polar station was established in 1929, but I don't know if this is really a settlement.
Novo Sibirsk Ostrova (aka "New Siberian Islands")100 years36,000 kilometers. A polar station was established in 1928.
Severnaya Zemlya (aka "Northern Land")90 years37,000 square kilometers. A polar station was established during WWII.

So, in the top section of this table, you can see that all habitable continents had been found by really "early" people more than 10,000 years ago, and from the middle section that most of the large islands had been colonized at least 1000 years ago. In addition, many of these large islands (like New Guinea/Papua New Guinea, Borneo, and Sumatra) were colonized during the really early stage (since people had to cross them to get to Australia).

The last section of the table describes some small or very remote islands that have been discovered and colonized in the last 600 years. The largest of these are found in the arctic to the north of Eurasia and are fairly inhospitable. These (Novaya Zemlya and Svalbard) probably constitute the largest (until recently) uninhabited islands. In comparison, Greenland covers about 2.2 million square kilometers, New Guinea 820,000 square kilometers, Borneo 743,000 square kilometers, and Madagascar 590,000 square kilometers. The temperate islands in the bottom section of the table are all very small and isolated, which explains why no one found them until recently. There are probably several other small habitable islands (e.g. St. Helena and Ascencion Island) that have only recently had human inhabitants, but I think you get the idea.

Overall, I would say that almost all of the hospitable places had been identified and colonized a while ago. For example, the Polynesian people managed to find extremely remote places like Easter Island, so it seems possible that they could have assessed most (if not all) of the islands in the Pacific, taking note of those that they deemed too inhospitable for survival.

So, to answer your question, the largest hospitable land masses that were not colonized relatively early in human history are Madagascar (the fourth largest island in the world), the islands of New Zealand (265,000 square kilometers), and Iceland (103,000 square kilometers), but almost all such regions had been identified by the end of the 15th century.

Thanks for such an interesting question. I had fun learning about some of these remote places (like Kerguelen), and I hope that I've answered your question.

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