Native Americans Barely Had Any Impact on the Landscape for 14,000 Years, Then Europeans Arrived

Native North Americans did not make large-scale changes to their environment in coastal New England in the 14,000 years they lived there before the Europeans arrived, a study has found.

In recent decades, it has been suggested Native Americans had a significant impact on the landscape around them due to various practices like using fire to clear forests. But Wyatt Oswald, from Emerson College, Boston, and colleagues have now found this not to have been the case.

"The ecological impact of Native Americans before European arrival has been debated for decades," he told Newsweek. "The generally accepted view, which became established in the 1980s with the publication of the book Changes in the Land, is that Native Americans cleared forests and used fire to open the landscape for agriculture and improve habitat for the plants and animals they relied upon.

"This understanding of the past has provided the rationale for using prescribed fire to manage open habitats on many conservation lands across southern New England."

The paper, published in the journal Nature Sustainability, has called into question the scale of this environmental impact.

"The paleo-climate, paleo-ecology and archaeological records suggest that native peoples were not modifying their immediate environments to a great degree," Elizabeth Chilton, one of the authors of the study from Binghamton University, said in a statement. "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."

For the study, the scientists examined several different types of data from coastal New England covering the past 14,000 years—around the time of the last Ice Age.

"We collected sediment cores from the bottoms of 23 lakes across southern New England, then analyzed pollen grains, charcoal fragments, and other features preserved in the mud to reconstruct past vegetation, fire, and climate," Oswald said. "We then compared the ecological and environmental history with data from 1,800 archaeological sites from the coastal region from Long Island to Cape Cod, including the islands of Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard."

Within this data, the researchers found no evidence for widespread human impacts prior to European colonization. According to the study, the New England landscape was forested, and the composition of the forest shifted through time in response to changes in climate. It wasn't until after the arrival of Europeans in North America that evidence appears for deforestation and widespread agriculture.

Martha's Vineyard
Researchers say Native Americans did not alter the landscape with fire burning practices. Significant ecological changes only took place after the arrival of the Europeans. David Foster

"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," Chilton said in the statement. "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."

The researchers say that the latest findings could have important implications for sustainability and conservation in the region today, demonstrating that Native Americans thrived in changing forest conditions by adapting and not by actively transforming their environment.

"These findings counter the prevailing theory that ancient humans had major ecological impacts on the landscapes in which they lived," Oswald said. "Our work should cause some New England conservationists to reconsider both their rationale and tools for land management."

He added: "If the goal is to emulate pre-European conditions, land managers should allow forests to mature with minimal human disturbance. If the goal is to maintain open habitats within the largely forested landscape, managers should apply the colonial-era agricultural approach that created them. That would include mowing, grazing, and cutting woody vegetation, rather than burning."