1541 and 1544. "Harmony" and "Ages and Death" (detail), Hans Baldung. Harmony represents the ideal state of the so-called "golden age" in classical Greece, where "there was no war, no work, no old age and neither disease." Ages and death represent physical aging and the finiteness of life, controlled by the hourglass © Museo Nacional del Prado

The human life cycle at the dawn of the Anthropocene

The life cycles of all species reflect adaptations and adjustments that they have had to make to live in the ecosystems they occupy and on which they have a certain capacity for modification. In our species, which is biocultural, the capacity for environmental transformation is maximized and accelerated over time, linked to the essential determinants of its life cycle (reproduction, viability by age and population growth) and its complex social and technological organisation to obtain food, water and all kinds of material resources.

It is important to place the evolution of the human life cycle on the time scale of Earth’s history in order to understand the interaction between its biocultural adaptation to the environment it occupies and its ability to modify it through its cultural and technological knowledge. The events of the history of the Earth and of life are arranged chronologically into large stratigraphic units, the eras, divided into smaller time units: periods and epochs. The Quaternary period has two eras: the Pleistocene, which began 2.9 million years ago, characterized by glaciations and the appearance of our species around 300,000 years ago; and the Holocene, which began about 11,600 years ago, characterized by a more temperate climate and by the appearance of agriculture and sedentary life.

The term «Anthropocene» has recently been incorporated into everyday language to designate the current moment in time, characterized by accelerated environmental destruction of human origin. There are, however, discrepancies on its chronology, depending on the cultural revolution with which its beginning is associated, the agricultural one for some authors or the industrial one for the majority. Although the term was born in the first half of the twentieth century, it became popular in the early twenty-first century, when Paul Crutzen, Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1998, proposed it to designate a new geological era characterized by the rapid and extensive destruction of ecosystems derived from human action. Its designation as a new era has not been officially ratified by the International Commission on Stratigraphy. However, its incorporation into everyday language is now irreversible. [Cristina Bernis]



[The five Galleries of this Room are available in Spanish atEl ciclo vital humano en los albores del Antropoceno. Gallery ‘Malnutrition: From under-to-over nutrition’ is also available in English (above).]