The Ecological Impact of Native Americans in Eastern North America

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The Ecological Impact of Native Americans in Eastern North America


Shetler, in the book Seeds of Change: Five Hundred Years Since Columbus, supports the myth that the new world was an unspoiled paradise by stating that " Native people were transparent in the landscape, living as natural elements of the ecosphere. Their world…was a world of barely perceptible human disturbances"(Shetler 1991). Sale contends that the Indians had a benign effect and refering to them as the "Ecological Indian".(Sale 1990) These are fine examples of the new way of portraying the Native Americans as "Noble Savages". There is no question that the Europeans had a more obvious influence on the landscape than the American Indian, but the notion that the Native Americans were "transparent" or "benign" to the landscape is an absurd over exaggeration. When in fact, "twenty million indigenous people were hunting gathering, burning, tilling, and otherwise managing North America"(Anderson 1991). It is not the intention of this paper to claim the American Indians did more harm to the environment than the European Settlers, but one important notion that must be understood before proceeding is that "even though a landscape may appear green it is not in indicator of natural ecology". It is the intention of this paper to show that the Native Americans had a significant impact on the ecology of the Eastern North American Landscape, which is unknown to many scholars.

Fossil records from 12,000 years ago show the appearance of the Large Mammals followed by Paleoindian in Eastern North America. Another piece of the fossil record shows that the appearance of Paleoindian brought about the disappearance of the large mammals. Some people feel that, "there is evidence to suggest that rapacious hunting practice of the paleohunters in North and South America 12,000 years ago may have caused…The demise of the very animals they hunted" (Powell 1987). The evidence Powell suggests is that the extinction of a large mammal is usually followed by the appearance of humans in the fossil record. This coincidence is not only seen in the fossil records of North and South America but Europe and Asia as well. Powell shows that as human populations increased local extinctions of large mammals occurred. This was probably due to the fact that there were not many predators that could hunt the large mammals except man. For this reason it is also highly like likely that man and large mammals did not co-evolve which ultimately resulted in the extinction of large mammals.

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Burning of the forest was common practice by woodlands Indians. David Peiterzoon De Vries a mariner, merchant, scholar, and settler was the first to document the Native Indians custom of burning the land(Salomon 1984. Some Native American tribes burned the forest every spring. This was done to clear the under story of the forest and encourage growth of desired plant. These were desired plants that would not be in abundance in the natural ecology of the land. For example it was common practice to burn swamp areas and pine stands to encourage the growth of blueberries. They would also use the fire to drive deer from the forest to natural barriers or fences made of poles. This way they could kill large numbers of deer with less effort. Afterwards the y would hunt in the open meadows made by their burning practices. Indians often came into conflict with settlers that built houses in these open meadows. The settlers did not realize Indians created them for hunting. Indians knew that creating open meadows encouraged the growth of many favored game species. Part of this conflict still remains today in the form of the virgin forest myth. European American thought then as they do day that the forest of the 1600’s was unaltered by the hand of man. For this reason it is hard for people to realize that the native Americans altered the landscape by creating open meadows and encouraging growth of favored game species.

When Hernando Desoto entered South Carolina in 1540 the chronicler noted that they, "journed a full league in garden-like lands where there were many trees, both those which bore fruit and others; and among these trees one could travel on horse back with out any difficulty, for they were so far apart that they appeared to have been planted by hand"(Anderson 1991). These trees probably were planted by southeastern Indians because they managed lands by burning, clearing, and subsequently replanting useful trees into park like patches. Native Americans initiated and maintained parklands extending several miles beyond the obvious limits of their towns. The important point is that they replanted useful trees. If they were true ecologist the native Americans would have replanted trees in their original proportions.

The demands native Americans had on the lands can be seen by the relocation of settlements. It has been speculated that relocation of villages was due to loss of game or depletion of soil, but as odd as it may seem these were not the most valuable resource. Casselberry states, "the most important [resource] was the ever-receding supply of fuel for cooking, heating and illumination. With only wood to burn, it eventually became easier to move the village to where the fuel was than to have family members walk miles each day to gather firewood" (Caselberry 1994). This shows that the native Americans had a high demand for energy relocating villages every 15-20 years. If the 3000 years that the Native Americans possessed the knowledge to produce fire is considered, the affect they had on the landscape becomes more apparent.

American Indians indeed had a significant impact on the Eastern North American landscape. The very appearance of their ancestors brought the extinct of large mammals. Their use of regular burning practices encouraged the growth of certain species of native flora and fauna; however these species were not the result of natural events. They were the result of Native American’s changing the landscape to produce the flora and fauna most useful to them. Estimates of the population of indigenous people ranged from 20 - 100 million at the time of Columbus. Had their population been given more time to increase even the settlers might have noticed environmental perturbations they might have created. Native Americans required a lot of energy to survive in North America so much in fact that is was one of the reasons for the relocation of their villages every 10-20 years. For these reasons referring to the American Indians benign elements to the environment is not only absurd, but also unjustified.

Works Cited

Anderson, Kat. "Gardens in Eden." Wilderness Fall 1991: 27-31 Salomon


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