An idea that has been gaining a lot of popularity recently is that the North American landscape was altered by settlers way before colonists arrived there.
A new study reports that contrary to this belief, early populations made minor changes to the landscape. The European colonists were the main drivers of environmental change.
The question seems fairly straightforward. Over the past 14,000 years (since the first settlers arrived on the continent) were humans the major drivers of environmental change in New England or were they merely responding to changes in the climate?
Answering the question, however, is anything but straightforward. In order to address it, a team of researchers analyzed data from multiple sources, from pollen records and archaeology to fire history gathered from charcoal in lake cores. They combed through data over the past 14,000 years, mapping everything together and performing an analysis. It was a pretty conclusive history of pre-colonial Native American history.
The results, researchers say, show that these populations weren’t drastically altering their environment. They were more prone to reacting to environmental changes rather than causing the changes themselves.
Even evidence of fire used to alter landscapes was very limited.
“The paleo-climate, paleo-ecology and archaeological records suggest that native peoples were not modifying their immediate environments to a great degree,” said Chilton. “And they certainly were not doing so with large-scale fire or clear-cutting of trees. The widespread and intensive deforestation and agriculture brought by Europeans in the 17th century was in clear contrast to what had come before. Previous conservation practices had been based on a presumption that Native Americans manipulated their environments using fire, and this research does not support that interpretation.”
There are several consequences to this study. Firstly, it offers important lessons for contemporary sustainability and eco-friendly practices. Although our technology and way of life are vastly different from those of our ancestors, there may still be ideas that we can learn and apply.
It also helps set the record straight. It was surprising even to researchers to see how little of an impact North Americans had during pre-colonial times. Even in urban areas, they mostly lived in harmony with the environment.
“Much to my surprise, we found that, even though we know that Native Americans were in New England for at least 14,000 years with, at certain times in history, fairly large population densities, the ecological signal was essentially invisible,” said Chilton. “If one did not know there had been humans on the landscape, it would be almost impossible to detect them on a regional scale. After the arrival of Europeans, large-scale cutting and burning of forests is very clear in the ecological record.”
“Ancient native people thrived under changing forest conditions not by intensively managing them but by adapting to them and the changing environment,” added Chilton.
The paper, “Conservation implications of limited Native American impacts in pre-contact New England,” was published in Nature Sustainability.