What would current ecosystems be like without the impact of mankind? This question, which is critical for ecosystem management, has long remained unanswered due to a lack of present-day data from truly undisturbed ecosystems. Using mountaineering techniques, we accessed pristine relict ecosystems in the Peruvian Andes to provide this baseline data and compared it with the surrounding accessible and disturbed landscape. We show that natural ecosystems and human impact in the high Andes are radically different from preconceived ideas. Vegetation of these ‘lost worlds’ was dominated by plant species previously unknown to science that have become extinct in nearby human-affected ecosystems. Furthermore, natural vegetation had greater plant biomass with potentially as much as ten times more forest, but lower plant diversity. Contrary to our expectations, soils showed relatively little degradation when compared within a vegetation type, but differed mainly between forest and grassland ecosystems. At the landscape level, a presumed large-scale forest reduction resulted in a nowadays more acidic soilscape with higher carbon storage, partly ameliorating carbon loss through deforestation. Human impact in the high Andes, thus, had mixed effects on biodiversity, while soils and carbon stocks would have been mainly indirectly affected through a suggested large-scale vegetation change.
Carbon cycle; Ecology; Ecosystem ecology; Element cycles; Environmental impact