12 Nov 2008, 3:40pm
Cultural Landscapes Fire History
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Native Americans as active and passive promoters of mast and fruit trees in the eastern USA

Marc D. Abrams, Gregory J. Nowacki. 2008. Native Americans as active and passive promoters of mast and fruit trees in the eastern USA. The Holocene, Vol. 18, No. 7, 1123-1137 (2008)

Full text [here]

Selected excerpts:


We reviewed literature in the fields of anthropology, archaeology, ethnobotany, palynology and ecology to try to determine the impacts of Native Americans as active and passive promoters of mast (nuts and acorns) and fruit trees prior to European settlement. Mast was a critical resource for carbohydrates and fat calories and at least 30 tree species and genera were used in the diet of Native Americans, the most important being oak (Quercus), hickory (Carya) and chestnut (Castanea), which dominated much of the eastern forest, and walnut (Juglans) to a lesser extent. Fleshy tree fruits were most accessible in human-disturbed landscapes, and at least 20 fruit- and berry-producing trees were commonly utilized by Native Americans. They regularly used fire and tree girdling as management tools for a multitude of purposes, including land clearing, promotion of favoured mast and fruit trees, vegetation control and pasturage for big-game animals. This latter point also applies to the vast fire-maintained prairie region further west. Native Americans were a much more important ignition source than lightning throughout the eastern USA, except for the extreme Southeast. First-hand accounts often mention mast and fruit trees or orchards in the immediate vicinity of Native American villages and suggest that these trees existed as a direct result of Indian management, including cultivation and planting. We conclude that Native American land-use practices not only had a profound effect on promoting mast and fruit trees but also on the entire historical development of the eastern oak and pine forests, savannas and tall-grass prairies. Although significant climatic change occurred during the Holocene, including the `Mediaeval Warming Period’ and the `Little Ice Age’, we attribute the multimillennia domination of the eastern biome by prairie grasses, berry-producing shrubs and/or mast trees primarily to regular burning and other forms of management by Indians to meet their gastronomic needs. Otherwise, drier prairie and open woodlands would have converted to closed-canopy forests and more mesic mast trees would have succeeded to more shade-tolerant, fire-sensitive trees that are a significantly inferior dietary resource.


… Several researchers have concluded that climate is the primary driver of vegetation change in the eastern USA (Parshall and Foster, 2002; Shuman et al., 2004). While we agree with the importance of climate, we also believe that the impact and extent of early Native American land use in shaping vegetation types is more substantial than previously thought. The large disparity in presettlement vegetation expression between climax forests (set by climatic controls) and that of shade-intolerant, disturbance based vegetation types strongly points toward human intervention (Stewart, 2002; Nowacki and Abrams, 2008). Indeed, vegetation modification by Native American burning and agricultural land clearance has been particularly well documented (Cronan, 1983; Pyne, 1983; Williams, 1989; Whitney, 1994; Bonnickson, 2000).

For example, forests dominated by oak, chestnut, hickory and pine prior to European settlement are thought to require periodic fire for continued recruitment and long-term success (Abrams, 1992; Lorimer, 2001). Bromley (1935) concluded that Native American populations in southern New England were of sufficient size to burn most of the landscape on a recurring and systematic basis. Indians regularly used broadcast burning to clear forest undergrowth, prepare croplands, facilitate travel, reduce vermin and weeds, increase mast production and improve hunting opportunities by stimulating forage and driving or encircling game (Whitney, 1994; Stewart, 2002; Williams, 2002). Accidental wildfires also occurred from escaped camp and signal fires and burned into the surrounding forests. Once fires were set, there was little incentive or means by which to put them out (Stewart, 2002).

During the latter part of the Holocene, Native Americans planted a wide variety of crop species in well-managed agricultural fields adjacent to their villages (Trigger, 1978; Fogelson, 2004). MacDougall (2003) lists a total of 35 herbaceous plant species cultivated by eastern Native Americans. By the sixteenth century, the most abundant crops were maize, beans and squash, known as the ‘Three Sisters’ when planted together (Martinez, 2007). In contrast to our understanding of Native American use of fire and the cultivation of crops, we know very little about their direct and indirect impacts on the distribution of the mast and fruit trees that were important in their seasonal diet. If Native Americans had the skills to develop sophisticated systems of agriculture, did they possess similar skills to manage forests?

The promotion of mast and fruit trees would have involved active silviculture and horticulture such as reducing competing vegetation via girdling, cutting or prescribed fire and the planting and tending of beneficial tree species, possibly even creating fruit or mast orchards (Delcourt and Delcourt, 2004). The passive promotion of certain trees could have stemmed from various land uses intended for other purposes, such as broadcast fire for reducing undergrowth for security and travel, game management and general land clearance. It also could have resulted from village and agricultural field abandonment. Important mast trees used by Native Americans in the eastern USA included oak, hickory, beech (Fagus), chestnut and walnut (Juglans), species that dominated many presettlement forests. Prairies dominated much of the Central Plains and Midwest prior to European settlement, also as result of Indian burning (Sauer, 1975; Stewart, 2002). Prairie sustained huge populations of large ungulate species of Bison, deer (Odocoileus) and elk (Cervus) that were vital to the Indian diet. In any given part of the eastern USA, various vegetation types or stages may exist depending on the climate, site conditions, disturbance regime and successional status. It is important to know to what extent the dominance of mast trees and prairie were a result of Native American land use and disturbance, whether either directly or indirectly, and to what extent these were created and maintained to meet dietary needs.

The purpose of this paper is to explore the role of Native Americans in the active and passive promotion of dietary mast and fruit trees and prairie in the eastern USA, and to determine to what extent their practices shaped the overall vegetation prior to European settlement. We explore the hypothesis that Native American land-use management was focused on the creation of large expanses of specific forest and prairie to meet their dietary needs. This will be accomplished by:

(1) synthesizing palaeoecological information on the long-term vegetation dynamics and climate during the latter part of the Holocene;

(2) comparing Native American ignitions to natural (lightning) sources;

(3) exploring ethnobotany and anthropology studies on the dietary uses of mast and fruit trees by Native Americans;

(4) reconstructing vegetation composition at the time of European settlement and ascertaining to what extent it was a result of Native American activities;

(5) documenting Native American land-use and vegetation management that has played a direct (active) or indirect (passive) role in promoting dietary mast and fruit trees in the USA. …

Selected References

Bonnicksen, T.M. 2000: America’s ancient forests. John Wiley and Sons, 594 pp.

Bonnicksen, T.M., Anderson, M.K., Lewis, H.T., Kay, C.E. and Knudson, R. 2000: American Indian influences on the development of forest ecosystems. In Johnson, N.C., Malk, A.J., Sexton, W.T. and Szaro, R., editors, Ecological stewardship: a common reference for ecosystem management. Elsevier Science Ltd, 67 pp.

Day, G.M. 1953: The Indian as an ecological factor. Ecology 34, 329–46.

Delcourt, P.A. and Delcourt, H.R. 2004: Prehistoric native Americans and ecological change. Cambridge University Press, 203 pp.

Doolittle, W.E. 1992: Agriculture in North America on the eve of contact: a reassessment. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 82, 386–401.

Guyette, R.P., Muzika, R.M. and Dey, D.C. 2002: Dynamics of an anthropogenic fire regime. Ecosystems 5, 472–86.

Kay, C.E. 2000: Native burning in western North America: implications for hardwood forest management. In Yaussy, D.A., compiler, Proceedings: workshop on fire, people, and the central hardwoods landscape; 2000 March 12–14, Richmond, KY. USDA Forest Service General Technical Report NE-274, 19–27.

Kay, C.E. 2007: Are lightning fires unnatural? A comparison of Aboriginal and lightning ignition rates in the United States. In Masters, R.E. and Galley, K.E.M., editors, Proceedings of the 23rd Tall Timbers fire ecology conference: fire in grassland and shrubland ecosystems. Tall Timbers Research Station, 16–28.

Lewis, H.T. 1993: Patterns of Indian burning in California: ecology and ethnohistory. In Blackburn, T.C. and Anderson, K., editors, Before the wilderness: environmental management by Native Californians. Ballena Press, 55–116.

Lewis, H.T. and Anderson, M.K. 2002: Introduction. In Lewis, H.T. and Anderson, M.K., editors, Forgotten fires: Native Americans and the transient wilderness. University of Oklahoma Press, 3–16.

Mann, C.C. 2005: 1491. Vintage Books.

Pielou, E.C. 1991: After the Ice Age: the return of life to glaciated North America. University of Chicago Press.

Pyne, S.J. 1983: Indian fires. Natural History 2, 6–11.

Pyne, S.J. 2001: The fires this time, and next. Science 294, 1005–1006.

Raup, H.M. 1937: Recent changes of climate and vegetation in southern New England and adjacent New York. Journal of the Arnold Arboretum 18, 79–117.

Sauer, C.O. 1975:Man’s dominance by use of fire. Geoscience and Man 10, 1–13.

Stewart, O.C. 2002: The effects of burning of grasslands and forests by aborigines the world over. In Lewis, H.T. and Anderson, M.K., editors, Forgotten fires: Native Americans and the transient wilderness. University of Oklahoma Press, 67–338.

Williams, G.W. 2002: Aboriginal use of fire: are there any ‘natural’ plant communities? In Kay, C.E. and Simmons, R.T., editors, Wilderness and political ecology: Aboriginal land management – myths and reality. University of Utah Press, 48 pp.

14 Nov 2008, 7:22am
by Native American Researcher

I’m not sure about the eastern US, but there is oral tradition evidence that Native Americans actively utilized pinyons (Pine Nuts) in the Great Basin, California, and parts of the Southwest. How much they influenced their growth and distribution is unknown, but I wouldn’t doubt it based on what I have seen.

14 Nov 2008, 11:01am
by Mike

There is ample evidence and confirmation that pine nuts from many pine species were eaten, including ponderosa pine and sugar pine.

Pine nuts, like acorns, have been eaten by Homo sapiens in many parts of the world since time immemorial. Today pine nuts are the indispensable ingredient in pesto sauce, along with garlic, basil, and Parmesan cheese. Good stuff. Of course people ate them.

And planted them. Native Americans were planters. The geographic distributions of pines and oaks are closely aligned with human cultural geography.



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