Prehistoric Forest Use  

== 4 of 5 ==
Date: Sun, Aug 31 2008 6:43 pm
From: Randy Brown

"It could be a case of history repeating itself in the jungles of
South America. Huge swathes of the Western Amazon were cleared 600
years ago, though back then it wasn't for logging, it was to make way
for an urban network of towns, villages and hamlets.
For the past few decades archaeologists have been uncovering urban
remains that date back to the 13th century long before European
settlers had sailed across the Atlantic and discovered the "New World".
This means that decent chunks some 20,000 square kilometres of the
Western Amazon forest is not, strictly speaking, what could be called
"virgin" forest. It is what took over after local cultures were wiped
out by European settlers and imported diseases and their towns and
villages were left untended."

== 5 of 5 ==
Date: Sun, Aug 31 2008 7:51 pm

By even Oliver and Larson's conservative, classic definition of old-growth forest ecosystems, subsequent generations of forests following the first response to a disturbance (New World Discovery), the Western Amazon's forests would be considered true old-growth...what, some 500 years later?

On Mon, Sep 1, 2008 at 10:20 PM, Josh Kelly  wrote:

I have read several articles over the past few years hyping the
concept of the "pristine myth" of South America. One even went so far
as to say that every square foot of current vegetation was a result of
past human disturbance. Many of these articles are written by
journalists interviewing anthropologists with very little or no
insight from botanists/ecologists. What a load of crap!

While it seems apparent that the pre-Columbian human population of the
"Americas" was orders of magnitudes higher than what was described in
most of our history books, it is also true that there are vast areas
of North, South and Central America that are and always have been
unsuited for agriculture and those areas at the very least are more
the product of non-human disturbances and processes than human ones.
A recent study of village locations of the Cherokee in very fertile
areas of the Southern Apps by Bolstad (U of Minn) and Gragson (U GA)
found that village locations were not based on resource allocation,
indicating that the Cherokee population was not limitted by resources
and they had no need (nor the capability) to manage every nook of
their landscape.

On two occassions I had the privelage to visit the Guiana Shield in
northeast South America, a very infertile, large area of tropical
forest growing over white sands derived from severely leached, 1.7
billion year old sandstone. Revisionists that make outlandish claims
about the human impact on neotropical forests seem to be unaware of
the white sand areas of the tropics. It is no surprise that human
popluations in the rich Andean foothills and riverside varzea forest
was once quite dense, to extrapolate that to the rest of the
neotropics gets me riled up.


TOPIC: 'Untouched' Amazon not so untouched after all?

== 1 of 7 ==
Date: Tues, Sep 2 2008 5:57 am
From: "William Morse"

I have shared similar conversations with a friend of mine who is a
soil scientists. His big talking point regarding historical
disturbance in the Amazon is the presence of anthropogenic soils
called, "terra preta nova". There are purported to be amazingly
productive soils and a factor in the hastened succession of clearing
in areas on those soils. An interesting tidbit about these soils is
that, despite being anthropogenic, these soils have not been
successfully recreated. I just did a google search of that term and
came up with this definition -

"Terra Preta (do indio) is a black earth-like anthropogenic soil with
enhanced fertility due to high levels of soil organic matter (SOM) and
nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and calcium
embedded in a landscape of infertile soils (see soil profiles below).
Terra Preta soils occur in small patches averaging 20 ha, but 350 ha
sites have also been reported. These partly over 2000 years old man
made soils occur in the Brazilian Amazon basin and other regions of
South America such as Ecuador and Peru but also in Western Africa
(Benin, Liberia) and in the savannas of South Africa. Terra Preta
soils are very popular to the local farmers and are used especially to
produce cash crops such as papaya and mango, which grow about three
times as rapid as on surrounding infertile soils."

Best regards,
Travis Morse

== 2 of 7 ==
Date: Tues, Sep 2 2008 10:42 am


Yes, the revisionists are having a field day and they are bolstered by stuff put out by the likes of Tom Bonnicksen, a darling of the timber community who would have us believe that here in North America Indians were also densely distributed popullation wise and running around with torches in hand. Another load of crap! Anthropologists don't make good ecologists. Then really neither do the Bonnicksens.


== 3 of 7 ==
Date: Tues, Sep 2 2008 11:29 am

Hopefully the soil amendment wasn't hemoglobin-based...

== 5 of 7 ==
Date: Tues, Sep 2 2008 5:19 pm
From: Lee Frelich

Bob et al.:

One thing the Anthropologists don't take into account is the effect of
earthworms on soil structure. Many earthworm species have patchy
distributions, and create soils that interpreted as AP layer (plow layer A
horizon). They are plowed, but by earthworms, not by people.

Earthworms and ants would easily wipe out signs of human influence on rich
soils within a few decades. Human influence may last longer if drainage
ditches were built, or on poor quality sandy or rocky soils where soil
organisms don't work the soils very effectively.


== 6 of 7 ==
Date: Tues, Sep 2 2008 6:15 pm


Good points. Thanks for weighing in.

Actually, I suspect that there are a lot of factors that Anthropologists don't take into account or evaluate properly. However, I wouldn't accuse them of having a particualr axe to grind. Not so with the timber community, though. It grabs at opportunities to paint the pre-settlement landscape as one shaped almost exclusively by human activity so that the very concept of forest preservation is cast as simplistic, idealistic feelings run amuck - without history or science. More on this point later.


== 7 of 7 ==
Date: Tues, Sep 2 2008 8:09 pm
From: Lee Frelich


You are right, Anthropologists, and even some ecologists, are guilty more
of ignorance than anything else. There have been rain forests that were
completely converted to civilization and then returned to forest,
especially in the Yucatan, but the situation was small areas of
civilization surrounded by forest, not small islands of forest surrounded
by intensive agricultural fields, development and pavement like we have today.


TOPIC: 'Untouched' Amazon not so untouched after all?

== 1 of 3 ==
Date: Wed, Sep 3 2008 5:25 am


Yes, the proportions seem to be getting reversed by the faction that believes the Americas were overrun by indigenous peoples who "managed" through fire every last square inch of of the countryside. Intensive impact along river corridors has never been much in question and yes the increase of prairie fires is pretty clear and seasonal burnings in sizable areas - but not in others, but all things should be viewed in proportion to the actual numbers of indigenous peoples.

When Lewis and Clark ventured out into the Great American West, those two stalwart explorers weren't exactly stumbling over Native American settlements evrywhere they went. The population distribution was very, very sparse and there wasn't evidence of huge population crashes in all settlements as did in fact occur in some areas, especially in the East as a result of the intentional spread of smallpox by whites such as the crimes committed by Lord Jeffrey Amherst.


== 2 of 3 ==
Date: Wed, Sep 3 2008 6:45 am


Has anyone else read "1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus" by Charles Mann?? An interesting book, if not entirely plausible.? Mann does tend to overstate the influence of prehistoric peoples in the New World on occasion--I believe he even makes the statement at one point that the vast oak/hickory (hard mast) forests in eastern North America were largely the product of plantings by Native Americans.

While I agree that it is inappropriate to overstate the role of prehistoric people on their environment, there are plenty of examples of very large scale human manipulations on parts of the Americas prior to Euroamerican settlement. Here in the southeast, especially along the major river bottoms, immense tracts of land were cleared and farmed for many generations prior to De Soto's entrada.  According to the reports written by these explorers, they crossed enormous areas of corn and other crops and could often see many villages from the place they were in, suggesting that most of the region's forest cover had been removed.? Other reconstructions in eastern North America also suggest major vegetation manipulations before Euroamericans arrived. Was every acre touched?  Not likely!

One of the difficulties in assessing the true nature of human impact on the New World at first contact was the fact that most of these areas were not "re-contacted" for many, many decades after the intial exposure of these cultures with European diseases. For example, Europeans did not revisit the Arkansas region following De Soto's expedition for about 150 years after the entrada, and given the combination of disease, mega-drought, and social upheavel in this region, the drastic human population crash in this region would have allowed the reestablishment of forest along most of this once farmed region.? Given how fast and large bottomland hardwoods can grow, it is no surprise to me that later Euroamerican arrivals would have been amazed by the big trees and extensive forests of the Mississippi River Valley, assuming them to have been untouched by man.  Hence, even environmental assessments provided by early American explorers in the early 1800s are subject to wide margins of error...

At?the last Ecological Society of America meeting, I saw several talks on how prehistoric peoples were able to masterfully manipulate their environments (primarily for agricultural use). These talks showed how large areas in Arizona and Hawaii were converted to agricultural use centuries before modern development of these landscapes began. In the case of the desert southwest, this involved clever engineering feats including irrigation, water flow-impeding barriers on many drainages, other structures built to trap soil for crops--all in places now far too dry to even attempt farming. This brings up another issue--how have past climates driven prehistoric human settlement and development patterns We are mistaken to think today's climate has been fixed as it is for as long as there have been people in the Americas. Since the last glacial maximum, the world has experienced very dramatic climate shifts in many places. Most recently, the "Little Ice Age" brought extensive changes to much of the northern hemisphere (at least), but before that we had what is known as the "Medieval Warm Period". This period of pronounced global warmth appears to also be timed with evidence of major drought here in the Midsouth. A seismologist I work with believes the abundance of low, circular mounds in this part of the world (often called "pimple" or "prairie" mounds) are a type of dune (nebka, or "coppice" dune) formed when blowing soil is trapped by patches of vegetation.? If true (and we're still working on this), these dunes would imply that much of the now well-watered and heavily timbered Midsouth (e.g., Arkansas, Louisiana, eastern Texas, and parts of Missouri) was dry enough to be at least very open, grassy woodlands, probably with large areas of shrub steppe or even desert-like grasslands or open ground. Some tentative dates using luminescence dating techniques place these mounds as forming between 1 and 2 thousand years ago...

I guess my point in all this is that we still need to learn much more about the natural and human-modified environments of the past before anyone tries to use them to support a particular advocacy position. Unlike modern environmental problems such as exotic species invasion, pollution, land clearing and conversion, human-induced climate change, etc., we have yet to--and, in all honesty, may NEVER--develop the tools to examine and understand the evolution of past conditions.


Don C. Bragg, Ph.D.
Research Forester
USDA Forest Service
Southern Research Station

The opinions expressed in this message are my own, and not necessarily those of the Southern Research Station, the Forest Service, or the USDA.

== 3 of 3 ==
Date: Wed, Sep 3 2008 11:16 am

Bob/Don Bragg-
I couldn't agree more...reading accounts of "Intensive impact along the river corridors" and extrapolating the impact to the countryside is akin to making population density estimates of California from the Interstates running through metropolitan Los Angeles. For anthropologists, their world is long gone and only 'extrapolatable", a SWAG at best.

Where we might disagree, is the extent to which smallpox would have spread. If we accept a more reasonable population density and diminished transport vectors, I suggest that smallpox outbreaks would be seriously fatal but localized.

TOPIC: 'Untouched' Amazon not so untouched after all?

== 1 of 2 ==
Date: Thurs, Sep 4 2008 5:44 pm

Don and Don,

I think we are in agreement and I think you will likely agree with my following comments which are presented in the interest of this discussion.
Concentrations of indigenous peoples in villages along river banks, lake shores, and in the few city-states were almost without question profoundly impacted by small pox - reduced to a tiny fraction of original numbers in key areas of the East before 1600. But in acknowledging the impact of disease, begs the question as to what was the original population that suffered the impact.
The most realistic sources I've read contend that the maximum population of Indians in North America north of Mexico was between 8 and 12 million. Let's assume 8 million for just the lower 48 states with the rest in Canada and Alaska. How was that population distributed? The eight million people were certainly not evenly spread over 3 million square miles. I would expect that fully 6 to 7 million were distributed over a small fraction of the 3 million square miles.
We can be certain that the places that were fertile and had mild climates supported the larger populations and some of the sites may have been occupied for up to 11,000 years. From an archeological standpoint, there is a lot of evidence of heavy human occupation at some of these sites, but at any given time, the numbers were not necessarily great.
Regions like what is now the 6 million acre Adirondack Park would have had been virtually uninhabited except for hunting parties and maybe spiritual journeys. Great Sacandaga Lake at the perimeter of the Dacks does show signs of some past settlement, but not that concentrated.
The way some of the anthropologists are sounding would lead the layperson to conclude that the evidence all points in one direction - toward huge numbers. However, studies done by Harvard Forest show that in areas of central Massachusetts the amount of charcoal in the soil is much less than presumed assuming the areas were frequently burned - a Tom Bonnicksen styled assumption.
This having been said, I fully acknowledge that other areas of the country, once thought not to have had many Indians have turned up evidence of heavy past use. The Blue Grass region of Kentucky is an example. Much more needs to be learned.
In terms of relatively recent Earth history, to an extent, one can approach the population challenge from the standpoint of the history of individual tribes/nations. How numerous were tribes like the Cherokee, Iroquois, Blackfoot, Lakota, Omaha, etc.? Estimates of the maximum population of the Cherokee vary from around 25,000 to maybe double that. The Lakota numbers may have been as high as 30,000 and the same for the Blackfoot Nation. Elsewhere in the Great Plains, there is no evidence that the Cheyenne and Arapahoe were ever very numerous. The Cheyenne probably never numbered more than 3,000 to 4,000. Mountain tribes like the Utes of Colorado were equally small. On the other hand, there is considerable evidence that the ancient Anasazi had a substantial population in the Southwest.
Much more needs to be learned before anthropologists and archeologists should throw around numbers such as some have been doing. More to come on this subject.


== 2 of 2 ==
Date: Fri, Sep 5 2008 1:19 am

Having spent some years in SE Kentucky, I can readily identify with native american preference for the bluegrass portions of Kentucky!

Regarding the population density of the Anasazi, I can't speak to the whole Southwest. I can relate and incredible density of native american artifacts across the Wupatki National Monument to the east of Flagstaff Arizona. Contracted to display archeological sites from the Anderson/Downum survey in a spatial database (GIS), my greatest challenge was labeling them. At the time I was limited to a 36" wide roll of plotter paper. I wasn't able to label each site on one sheet of plotter paper, even going down to 6 font (the font you are now reading is 11 font), and hand placing them...I eventually was able to meet the client's needs by arraying the sites across three categories (one map per category).

But in a way, I think this is misleading, thinking in terms of two dimensions. It became apparent to me that what we were seeing wasn't a one time, even one generation accumulation of arch. sites, but a fairly long chronology of accumulated sites. Looking back as archeologists/anthropologists/paleontologists do, the scales of chronology are often difficult to discern.

Another consideration is the transience of native least in the Southwestern US, the environment is sufficiently harsh that nomadic travel in accordance with seasonal change to access plant and animal habitats, water, and shelter appropriate to the environment would have been the norm. This would also tend to result in overestimation of population densities without in depth research.


== 2 of 3 ==
Date: Fri, Sep 5 2008 11:33 am


Good points. Also, anthropologists who subscribe to the high indigenous population totals based on selected spots of intense use should look outside the settlement corridors and take stock of how much of the countryside doesn't exhibit evidence of intense indigenous settlement.

I certainly don't claim to know what all the evidence would point to, but I suspect that those anthropologists might be a little more circumspect were more evidence in.


== 3 of 3 ==
Date: Fri, Sep 5 2008 6:17 pm
From: the Forestmeister

Regardless of the numbers- a holocaust is a holocaust. A holocaust to
the natives and a holocaust to the land. The beneficiaries must never
forget this.


== 2 of 3 ==
Date: Sat, Sep 6 2008 8:19 am


I think the holocaust has been forgotten, is not acknowledged, or is not understood by all but a tiny minority of Americans. The massive loss of indigenous lives happened far too long ago for it to have an impact on the consciousness of the average American today. In addition, as we continue to absorb immigrants, the backgrounds of those immigrants continue to make the distant past history of the U.S. less of a factor in the collective psyche of Americans. Even for those white Americans living near reservations, many today think that reservation dwellers receive welfare - as opposed to the government fulfilling past treaty obligations.

With respect to Native peoples who lost their lives from disease brought in by Europeans, regardless of the numbers, as you say, we would all agree that the results were catastrophic. Entire tribs/nations disappeared. I would never personally diminish the magnitude of the loss in a broad human context, but the poorly documented circumstances of its occurrence and the continuous immigration into this country afterwards renders the American holocaust a distant part of the pre-history of the United States.

The point I was working toward in these discussions about aboriginal populations and their levels is that anthropologists who inflate the population figures give the resource extractors ammunition to make their case for "active management" of all the nation's forests. If the Indians did it, why shouldn't we? Presumably, even the most pristine-appearing areas of old growth are aftermaths of long term land use practices of Native Americans. The anthropologists do make convincing arguments for large areas having been burned repeatedly by Indians and the vegetative communities we see to day having their roots in past fires or the lack thereof today. Unfortunately, their arguments have spilled over into the world of the timber harvester who sees forests as valuable only as crops and maybe early succesional habitat for certain game animals. It is a classic debate over land use that has no end in sight. The timber harvesters have gained some strong allies on their side to include
academics who are supposed to be strictly objective.

Tom Bonnicksen writes eloquently of the use of fire by Native peoples and despite my disagreement with his overall philosophy of forest use, his book "America's Ancient Forests - From the Ice Age to the Age of Discovery" provides much anecdotal evidence for widespread aboriginal use of fire. When I was first introduced to Bonnicksen's book, I found it well written and compelling. The problem is that there is no balance. Bonnicksen cites the evidence on one side of the scales, but ignores the other. In addition, my subsequent access to email communications between Bonnicksen and members of the Forest Stewards Guild left me with a different view of the scientific value of Bonnicksen's contribution. I still see his work as valuable as a compendium of anecdotal accounts of past land use by Native Americans. We just have to be weary of the scale of application for which he argues and his conclusions, explicit or implicit.


== 3 of 3 ==
Date: Sat, Sep 6 2008 4:29 pm
From: the Forestmeister

No doubt "active management" meant something very different to stone
age people than to modern high tech Americans.