Indigenous populations deforested New World rainforests before European contact
Rhett A. Butler, mongabay.com
February 28, 2007
Using pollen, phytolith, and charcoal records to identify the distribution and composition of tropical vegetation and fire patterns over the past 11,000 years, Dolores R. Piperno of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama and National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, found evidence of widespread fire use for land-clearing by pre-Colombian populations in Latin America. Her work confirms earlier research suggesting the substantial impact native populations had on tropical forests long before European arrival in the New World.
Indigenous land-clearing in Latin America
Piperno's research shows that fires begin shortly after the arrival of humans in Central America around 11,000 years ago and continued until the arrival of Europeans in the early 16th century.
For example, at Lake La Yeguada in Panama, Piperno found signs "indicating frequent firing of the forest and small-scale vegetation clearance begins at 11,000 BP, [coinciding] with the settlement of the region by Clovis hunters and gatherers. The disturbance is represented by a large (several orders of magnitude) and rapid increase of charcoal and plants of forest gaps such as Heliconia and grasses, and it is sustained throughout the early Holocene," she wrote. "Hence it appears that early hunters and gatherers repeatedly subjected the forest around La Yeguada to fire and small-scale clearing." She notes that it is "highly unlikely" that the burning was caused by natural processes.
Deforestation in the Colombian Amazon - photo by Rhett A. Butler.
"Some of the trees first recorded during the early Holocene do not appear again when indigenous population pressure decreases... while other taxa... appear to be present in higher frequencies than they were before the vegetation was fired and cleared."
Her findings that indigenous populations impacted the abundance of plant species in the forest are supportive of the theory that Latin American forests have long been shaped by human populations. Some scientists have even argued that the present-day Amazon rainforest reflects thousands of years of human management and use.
"Human cultures had profound effects on the structure and composition of the lowland tropical forest long before Europeans arrived. Human-induced perturbations were often greater and more widespread than those brought about by Pleistocene climatic and other physical factors," Piperno wrote. "Many arboreal and even herbaceous taxa were in large or smaller part removed from landscapes that were underneath indigenous agricultural systems. Other plants experienced range extensions as they were widely dispersed together with crop plant species, or were otherwise exchanged between human cultures, experimented with, and grown outside of their native habitats."
Piperno argues that had European contact not eliminated most of the indigenous population from the New World, the forests of South and Central America might bear little resemblance to those we know today.
"If Europeans had not arrived little more than 500 years ago and tragically all but ended indigenous life in many areas of Central and South America, it is very much an open question as to how sustainable intensifying or even maintaining existing agricultural practices would have been under ever- increasing human population densities, even with the use of relatively simple technologies (stone tools and fire) as instruments of forest clearing," she writes. "Archaeological records from the tropics and elsewhere also tell stories of over-exploitation of marine and other resources during the prehistoric era. Moreover, rigorous studies of modern indigenous resource use in tropical South America make it clear that short-term self-interest and a desire to capture game in an energetically efficient manner structure hunting and other subsistence pursuits much more so than does a long-term interest in conserving resources."
Taking heed of this history, and not over-romanticizing the relationship between indigenous populations and forests, is key to current conservation efforts, says Piperno.
"In order to better preserve and protect the remaining forests, we have to straightforwardly assess past and present human behavior, its proclivities, and its goals. At the very least, we should more carefully define what we mean by the word conservation when we describe modern indigenous resource use... no matter how sustainable the resource usage appears to be."
Noting the vast body of research indicates the existence of large, dense, sedentary populations in the Amazon, Piperno implies that conservationists should come to terms with the fact that tropical forests have been cleared in the past as they are being cleared today, and then move forward with effective strategies for preserving what remains.
"As with the forces associated with 'development' today, these prehistoric advances probably came with negative consequences for the native flora and fauna. Profound human alteration of the tropical landscape with substantial loss of biodiversity is hardly new, but we are the first societies with the wherewithal to do something about it."
CITATION: Dolores R. Piperno (2006). QUATERNARY ENVIRONMENTAL HISTORY AND AGRICULTURAL IMPACT ON VEGETATION IN CENTRAL AMERICA. Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden Volume 93, Number 2
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