This is the puzzle being solved by Professor Corey Bradshaw, head of the Global Ecology Lab at Flinders University. By developing complex computer modelling and steering a vast international cohort of collaborators, he is developing research that can influence environmental policy — from reconstructing the past to revealing insights of the future.
As an ecologist, he aims both to reconstruct and project how ecosystems adapt, how they are maintained, and how they change. Human intervention is pivotal to this understanding, so Professor Bradshaw casts his gaze back to when humans first entered a landscape – and this has helped construct an entirely fresh view of how Aboriginal people first came to Australia, up to 75,000 years ago.
Two recent papers he co-authored — 'Stochastic models support rapid peopling of Late Pleistocene Sahul', published in Nature Communications, and 'Landscape rules predict optimal super-highways for the first peopling of Sahul' published in Nature Human Behaviour — showed where, how and when Indigenous Australians first settled in Sahul, which is the combined mega-continent that joined Australia with New Guinea in the Pleistocene era, when sea levels were lower than today.
Professor Bradshaw and colleagues identified and tested more than 125 billion possible pathways using rigorous computational analysis in the largest movement-simulation project ever attempted, with the pathways compared to the oldest known archaeological sites as a means of distinguishing the most likely routes.
The study revealed that the first Indigenous people not only survived but thrived in harsh environments, providing further evidence of the capacity and resilience of the ancestors of Indigenous people, and suggests large, well-organised groups were able to navigate tough terrain.
“Humans are highly adaptable and show a huge capability to change. Tracking the movement of the first Aboriginal people in Australia proves they were adept, able to enter a completely foreign landscape and to make their new communities thrive,” says Professor Bradshaw. “Understanding this not only challenges a colonial and racist view of Aboriginal culture, it also underlines the great cognitive powers humans have always shown to solve problems and to progress.”
Beyond using data to reconstruct pictures of the past, Professor Bradshaw’s analysis can also assess possible future scenarios, investigating how environmental modification will comprise human health, wealth and wellbeing.
The most effective summary has been a chilling perspective paper — 'Underestimating the challenges of avoiding a ghastly future', published in Frontiers in Conservation Science — in which the team of scientists led by Professor Bradshaw say continuing loss of biodiversity and accelerating climate change in the coming decades coupled with ignorance and inaction is threatening the survival of all species.
The paper cites more than 150 studies, outlining likely future trends in biodiversity decline, mass extinction, climate disruption, and planetary toxification that are all tied to human consumption and population growth. The modelling demonstrates that these problems will worsen over coming decades, generating negative impacts for centuries to come.