European settlers not the first to alter american landscape

Mar 31, 2011 By Joel N. Shurkin
Credit: NPS / George Ratliff

One of the great American myths claims that before Europeans colonists settled in North America, Native Americans existed in total harmony with nature, surviving on the renewable bounty that the continent's natural environment provided and altering little of the surrounding landscapes. They were America’s first environmentalists and the land they lived in remained unspoiled. But that is not entirely true.

Research by scientists at Baylor University, the Smithsonian Institution, and Temple University has found that the Native Americans who lived in the Delaware Valley, the river valley that separates New Jersey from Pennsylvania, dramatically altered its terrain with their farming. They cleared forests and increased the number of floods.

“From the period 1000-1600 A.D., a few hundred years before European colonization, there was this episode of strong, more frequent flooding that coincides with increase in prehistoric land use,” said Gary Stinchcomb, a doctoral student at Baylor and lead author of the study. “We also find increasing [numbers of] maize kernels and we also find more grasses at the site.”

While the alteration in the was hardly in the league with what the colonists did later -- the pre-colonial population was never very large -- the impact was not insignificant and the alterations continued until the Native Americans left the valley in the early 18th century.

Another myth is that the Eastern part of , particularly the mid-Atlantic states and the Northeast, were completely forested. That is also likely not true as the Native Americans had to clear the forest to make way for their crops, and corn was grown almost everywhere along the East Coast.

The paper appears on-line in the journal Geology.

The Native Americans in the area were called Delawares by , called them-selves Lenni Lenape and are now virtually extinct. They moved out of the area before the American Revolution, leaving behind only place names. The few remaining Le-nape have gone to Canada or been absorbed into the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, and the last native speaker died decades ago.

Stinchcomb said the researchers analyzed a range of material as part of their study, including: maize kernels deposited by the floods at archeological sites in the area, carbon dating, geochemical signatures of carbon, artifacts and bodies called phytoliths or plant stones which are small silica bodies found in many plants, especially grass and maize. The phytoliths give researchers a picture of what types of plants were in the area.

The researchers found that during the period archeologists call the Late Woodland, the 500 or so years before the European colonization, the number of agricultural sites in the valley grew dramatically as the Native Americans greatly increased land use.

While a population increase could account for some of the expansion, a more likely scenario is increased agriculture.

According to Dean Snow, professor of archeological anthropology at Pennsylvania State University, the Lenape depended on deer hides for clothing, which motivated hunters to follow the wanderings of deer throughout the valley. They always returned to their villages, where the crops were being raised. If the deer moved, the Lenape and their farms and villages moved with them.

The researchers also looked at sedimentation rates or flooding in the river valley and flood plain. They found an increase in the same time period, Stinchcomb said, and that appeared to be true all along the river valley.

Correlation does not equal causation, but Stinchcomb said that “this data suggests that as Native Americans practiced more intensive farming, they increased the magnitude and frequency of flooding in the river valleys.”

That the Lenape affected the environment was known before -- did not always act as good stewards of the land as asserted by mythology -- but the discovery of the increased flooding was new, Snow said.

To plant their crops, the Lenape had to chop down trees, and anecdotal evidence supports that conclusion. Early colonists reported finding huge tracts of land in the river valleys that had apparently been cleared. They, of course, then proceeded to clear the rest.

The finding also helps resolve an old debate among anthropologists -- now somewhat muted -- over just how agricultural the Lenape were. According to this finding, agriculture was a major factor in their lives, Snow said.

The impact of the Lenape’s farming however has a broader, semantic result.

“Our streams prior to European colonization are not, by definition, natural. They probably have been tampered with,” Stinchcomb said.

Explore further: Quakes destroy or damage 83 houses in Philippines

More information: Pre-colonial (A.D. 1100–1600) sedimentation related to prehistoric maize agriculture and climate change in eastern North America, doi:10.1130/G31596.1

Provided by Inside Science News Service

4.4 /5 (10 votes)

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User comments : 16

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Scientifica
not rated yet Mar 31, 2011
Not to mention, the wild indians also did some copper mining up in northern Michigan.
JRDarby
not rated yet Mar 31, 2011
And there is significant evidence that human hunting practices in Pleistocene North America resulted in the deaths of a large number of megafauna.
ArtflDgr
2.9 / 5 (7) Mar 31, 2011
I wonder if a certain 'class' of people who are stuck on false utopias will get it
ziphead
3 / 5 (2) Mar 31, 2011
I wonder if a certain 'class' of people who are stuck on false utopias will get it


I don't get it. What does that mean, doctor?
pubwvj
3.6 / 5 (5) Mar 31, 2011
Not to mention the massive environmental modifications done by the Maya, Inca, Aztec and other groups. The reality, as non-PC as it may be, is that our native American ancestors did not "live in harmony" with nature. They raped, pillaged and burned their way through history. Same-o-same-o around the world.
210
2.8 / 5 (9) Mar 31, 2011
Not to mention the massive environmental modifications done by the Maya, Inca, Aztec and other groups. The reality, as non-PC as it may be, is that our native American ancestors did not "live in harmony" with nature. They raped, pillaged and burned their way through history. Same-o-same-o around the world.

HOLD IT!!! From the article:
"While the alteration in the landscape was hardly in the league with what the colonists did later -- the pre-colonial population was never very large -- the impact was not insignificant and the alterations continued until the Native Americans left the valley in the early 18th century.
Another myth is that the Eastern part of North America, particularly the mid-Atlantic states and the Northeast, were completely forested. That is also likely not true as the Native Americans had to clear the forest to make way for their crops, and corn was grown almost everywhere along the East Coast."
In 500 year period, they left their mark, but RAPED isn't right!
210
2 / 5 (4) Mar 31, 2011
Not to mention the massive environmental modifications done by the Maya, Inca, Aztec and other groups. The reality, as non-PC as it may be, is that our native American ancestors did not "live in harmony" with nature. They raped, pillaged and burned their way through history. Same-o-same-o around the world.

The oil, was still in the ground, one herd of Buffalo extended across three US states, no cholera, no small POX, none of the industrial diseases Europeans did NOT have a monopoly on. Further, we have yet to get final word on any mass extinctions bought on by the Native American. Were they perfect? NO! As humans we learn by fault, stumble fall, screw up, get back up and try again. Europeans have been in North America for half the time as the 'Natives' and we have actual disease clusters: http://www.physor...tes.html
along with our corn, bread and butter, Fords Apple pie and baseball.
-word-to-ya-muthas-
napdaw
not rated yet Mar 31, 2011
Poverty point - look it up. One of many earthworks in North America (outside of the Inca, Mayan, Aztecs) done pre-European contact... this is not news.
Cave_Man
4 / 5 (8) Mar 31, 2011
This article is pretty moronic, who believes that the native americans never took anything from the land, they just used the whole buffalo etc we take millions of tons of raw materials and leave behind millions of tons of toxic waste.

I wish these asses would stop trying to rationalize their complete, wholesale rape of the entire planet by saying "Oh well someone else did it so its all right"
StillWind
3 / 5 (4) Mar 31, 2011
Don't really know any real "cave men" that use computers, which require all sorts of mining, well drilling, and hard utilization of resources.
What we do have is spoiled children that are fat and happy to sit in homes and live lifestyles that were undreamed of by 99% of the human population, and who would likely trade places with him ion an instant, regardless of what it cost the "earth".
News flash faux Cave Man, all metals are toxic in high enough concentrations, and that includes where ever they come in contact with flora and fauna, whether it's a mine or natural seep. Bacteria and fungi take what ever we discard, and eventually transform it into something else, and the cycle continues.
If you don't want to be a part of it, get out of the society that you feel guilty about, and don't contribute to what you believe to be a problem.
Besides, hypocrisy is the worst kind of lie.
Smellyhat
2.3 / 5 (3) Apr 01, 2011
I was somewhat disturbed by the way the article kept returning to 'debunking' the 'myth' that Native Americans never did anything that altered the landscape. Why is this more important to the author than the actual scientific discoveries being discussed? And for that matter, when he says "the pre-colonial population was never very large," what does he mean? Large as compared to what? Large as compared to the post-colonial population... when? He seems to be perpetuating a myth of his own, that the land was largely 'empty' when the colonists arrived. There is now, to my understanding, fairly strong evidence that the Native American populations had, in the previous decades, been catastrophically reduced by a series of plagues spreading from the points of initial European contact.
Jimee
3 / 5 (2) Apr 03, 2011
There weren't 5 billion natives running around blowing the tops off mountains either. Experimentation wasn't as devastating to the planet as a whole.
StillWind
2.3 / 5 (3) Apr 03, 2011
There weren't 5 billion natives running around blowing the tops off mountains either. Experimentation wasn't as devastating to the planet as a whole.


There are currently only 300 million Americans, and mother nature has removed much more than man ever will from the tops of mountains. (specifically the Appalachians, which are the oldest mountain chain in the world and at one time rivaled or exceeded the Andes or Himalayas)
Funny how "so called" environmentalists don't really know the first thing about nature or the environment..
impZ
1 / 5 (1) Apr 04, 2011
A word of caution , Smithsonian Institution have fabricated much of your known history (if not all of it), please stop , think , and wake up !
GSwift7
1 / 5 (1) Apr 06, 2011
Correlation does not equal causation, but Stinchcomb said that this data suggests that as Native Americans practiced more intensive farming, they increased the magnitude and frequency of flooding in the river valleys


I wonder if they have looked at the possibility of a link between the MWP in Europe and increased rainfall in the US northeast? The time periods match up very closely. Mild winters and long summers could explain both an Indian population explosion and increased farming as the indian population exceedes deer populations.

Native people around the globe at all time periods are known to have done large scale environmental engineering. In some places they burn brush to drive out game. In some places they burn underbrush to make hunting easier on the forest floor. Slash and burn agriculture is common for people that don't have big bulldozers to clear land for farming. Damn building is another native practice (learned from beavers?).
GSwift7
1 / 5 (2) Apr 06, 2011
The only reason primitive people do not use resources is because they do not know how to use them. Europeans were primitive until they learned how to use the resources around them. Once a people learn how to use a resource, they start to use it. Native Americans didn't have a use for lumber, so they didn't do forst conservation. They didn't use metals so they didn't mine. They didn't build with stone so they didn't quary. Primitive stone age people in Europe had extensive quaries though. Primitives in other places mined for salt or chalk. People around the middle east figured out irrigation very early on.

The town where I went to highschool (Sparta, NJ) had a nice Lenni Lenape museum in the basement of the library. There are extensive displays of farming and logging tools. I myself have a granite axe head that I found on my grandfather's farm in Missouri. The time and energy it takes to make an axe head from granite would indicate that cutting down trees was important and common.