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Watching Humans Take Over the Earth in 200,000 Years Is Pretty Relaxing

It took 200,000 years to reach the first billion humans, but only 200 years to get to seven billion.
Image: Amy West/Flickr

On Friday, the American Museum of Natural History released the above video, which maps the growth and migration of the human population from our origin as a species up to the present day.

Modern humans emerged around the horn of Africa around 200,000 years ago. The earliest example of Homo sapiens is Omo-1, a hunter whose 195,000 year old remains were found in Ethiopia's Omo Valley in 1967. Modern humans began migrating out of Africa about 100,000 years ago, using land bridges to spread across the Middle East, Europe and Asia.

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It took Homo sapiens sapiens 200,000 years to reach the first billion people, but for the majority of this time the human population was pretty small—likely less than one million people. There were a few near extinction events, such as the massive volcanic eruption in Sumatra about 70,000 years ago which may have left as few as 2000 humans alive.

With the advent of agriculture roughly 12,000 years ago, the human population began to balloon from an estimated five million in 8,000 BC to roughly 170 million people by AD 1. Over the next 2,000 years, things start to get pretty wild. The 1 billionth Homo sapiens sapiens was estimated to have been born around 1804 and person number 2,000,000,000 wouldn't be born until 1927. That means within the last 90 years, we've managed to add an additional 5 billion people to the globe.

The 20th century human population boom is alarming and if current trends continue the global population will peak at approximately 11 billion people sometime around 2100. This means that population growth is actually slowing compared to what we've witnessed in the last 90 years, with fertility rates dropping in nearly every country.

The question posed by the American Museum of Natural History is how we are going to handle approaching spaceship Earth's carrying capacity. The massive population boom over the last 200 or so years has put a strain on Earth's resources already and another 4 billion people isn't likely to help this scenario.

Instead, the Museum of Natural History advocates for family planning, reduced consumption, pollution controls, and habitat protection to mitigate the harms induced by projected human population growth. Because it may be relaxing to watch human population growth on a YouTube video set to ambient post-rock, but the reality on the ground will be fraught with violence linked to the increasing scarcity of resources.