Peter Bellwood: the uneasy harmony between mankind and nature

While humanity’s coexistence with nature is not always harmonious, Cosmos Prize winner says it can be hard to pick the aggressor

July 30, 2021
Peter Bellwood Cosmos Prize ANU

Arguments about Covid-19’s origins are just the latest example of scientific uncertainty around the interplay between humankind and nature, according to Canberra archaeologist Peter Bellwood.

Professor Bellwood, who has claimed one of the world’s top international scientific prizes, said circular debates about humanity’s impacts on the natural world – and vice-versa – had been applied to human developments and declines going back millennia. While there was little doubt about humans’ current effects on the climate, “causal” factors in ancient times were harder to unravel.

He said that the “human signature” of environmental impact could be traced to prehistoric times, with evidence that land clearance for agriculture and methane emissions from rice cultivation had increased atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations as early as 8,000 years ago. But teasing such factors apart from natural climate changes was “very, very difficult”.

Professor Bellwood has secured this year’s International Cosmos Prize, presented by the Osaka-based Expo ’90 Foundation to celebrate “the harmonious coexistence of nature and mankind”. Previous winners include environmentalist David Attenborough, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and primatologist Jane Goodall.

Professor Bellwood’s “important research achievements” have transformed ways of “looking at the relationship between nature and humans”, the foundation’s testimonial says. He is credited with advancing the “early farming dispersal hypothesis”, which proposes agricultural practices as a major driver of early migrations and language distributions that still influence relationships between today’s populations.

“Motivated by a reliance on domesticated plants such as wheat and rice, human beings transformed vast areas of natural vegetation into croplands, thereby having a significant impact on the global environment,” the foundation said. “Closer contact between human society and wildlife has given rise to new infections.”

Leicester-born and Cambridge-educated, Professor Bellwood was drawn Down Under – where university jobs were in relatively plentiful supply – by his interest in the “remarkable” migrations that produced the Polynesian cultures. “In the 1960s, there were lots of mysteries about Polynesia,” he said.

He lectured at the University of Auckland and spent several years studying Polynesian archaeology. In 1973 he relocated to the Australian National University – where he remains today, as emeritus professor – to undertake research on the Pacific migrations’ source. “I realised very quickly that the people in the Pacific hadn’t developed there. They’d arrived quite recently from Eastern and South-eastern Asia.”

Professor Bellwood found that the combination of archaeology, anthropology and linguistics that helped unpack the dispersal of Austronesian-speaking peoples could be applied to understand other major population movements. His research has also taken him further back in time, to explore how early humans such as Homo erectus influenced the modern world.

While such questions might seem far removed from modern concerns, he said there was much to be learnt from our prehistoric ancestors – including those from other human-like species. He cited recent research suggesting that our genetic susceptibility to Covid-19 might have been inherited from Neanderthals.

While stressing his lack of “specific medical knowledge”, he said more pandemics were likely given the scale of human population and its encroachment on nature. “We might think the world is advancing quickly, but there’s an awful lot of disproportion in the distribution of wealth and knowledge. That’s something humans have to sort out.”

The Australian Academy of the Humanities, where Professor Bellwood has been an elected fellow since 1983, said the award showed that Australia was “still punching above its weight in vital research fields”.

“It demonstrates the importance of bringing together the humanities and scientific research,” said academy president Lesley Head. “Human life in our region many millennia ago…has shaped the complex world we live in and many of the challenges we face today.”

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