Pre-Columbian people spread fruit species across Latin America
Prehistoric humans helped spread edible fruit species across Central and South America, even as they wiped out the megafauna that had done so previously. In the process, we maintained and even expanded the plants’ habitats, increased biodiversity, and engineered ecosystems on two continents. Today, these fruit species could be important in 21st-century efforts to diversify human diets, address food scarcity, and improve agricultural sustainability.
Fruiting plants have evolved a very solid strategy for getting their offspring out into the world. Animals eat the fruit, they drop the seeds, and the next generation of plants takes root, often quite a distance away from their parents. Before about 12,000 years ago, animals like the giant sloth, elephant-like mammals called gomphotheres, and native horses did most of the work of seed dispersal in Latin America.
When those animals died out around the end of the Pleistocene, many of the fruit species they’d helped spread found their ranges contracting. But as the early Holocene climate shifted toward warmer, wetter conditions, humans picked up the slack in a big way for some fruit species.