The Atlantic

How Disease and Conquest Carved a New Planetary Landscape

Migration and a global shipping network have flattened biodiversity worldwide.
Source: Enrique Shore / Reuters

Many people think that in the thousands of years following the rise of agriculture, human societies were static. They were not. Empires rose—some flourished, then perished, while others persisted. Most people remained subsistence farmers who kept themselves, or themselves and the ruling elites, alive. Foraging as a way of life was pushed to agriculturally marginal lands. Populations grew rapidly, with estimates ranging from between 1 and 10 million people at the beginning of agriculture to between 425 and 540 million in the year 1500, around 10,000 years later.

In the 16th century, everything began to change, and change with increasing speed. Agricultural development, from simpler farming communities to city-state to empire (and often back again), slowly began to be replaced by a new mode of living. Revolutions in what people ate, how they communicated, what they thought, and their relationship with the land that nourished them emerged. Somehow, those living on the western edge of the continent of Europe changed the trajectory of the development of human society, and changed the trajectory of the development of the Earth system, creating the modern world we live in today. Nothing would be the same again.

A pivotal moment in this shift to the modern world was the arrival

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