Native people did not use fire to shape New England’s landscape

An interpretive sign sits on the edge of the Montague Plains Wildlife Management Area, a 1,500-acre state conservation property in central Massachusetts. He explains that the site’s open ground vegetation has been shaped by “millennia of fire” and that the recent fire exclusion has led to a decline in this habitat and the species that call it home. He goes on to explain that fire is reintroduced to the site through controlled burns “to revitalize fire-adapted species”.

Gary Chartrand

The prescribed fire in the Montague Plains and dozens of other conservation areas in New England is based on the belief that, for thousands of years, Native Americans have cleared forests and used fire to improve the habitat of plants and animals. in those who depended. The use of fire as a management tool is just one example of a broader shift in the way environmentalists and environmentalists have come to think about the impact of ancient humans. Increasingly, researchers believe natives control ecosystems across much of the world, from the boreal regions to the Amazon, including many areas previously considered pristine.

Our new research, published in the journal Nature Sustainability, tests this human-centered view of the past using interdisciplinary and retrospective science. The data we collect suggests, in New England, that this assumption is wrong.

The sediment tells the story
In the field of paleoecology, researchers take advantage of the fact that, over time, the bottoms of lakes and ponds fill up with mud. With a handheld device, scientists can collect a cylindrical core from the sediment and then use radiocarbon dating to determine the age of the mud at different depths. Over the past century, scientists have collected sediment cores from hundreds of lakes around the world, enabling them to reconstruct the environments and ecosystems of the past.
Our team of paleo-ecologists and archaeologists have collected sediment cores from 23 ponds in southern New England. We analyzed ancient pollen grains, fragments of charcoal and clues to past water depth, all stored in the mud, allowing us to create a record of vegetation, fires and weather conditions for thousands of years.

We then compared this ecological and environmental history with data from more than 1,800 archaeological sites along the coast from Cape Cod to Long Island, including the islands of Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket and the Elizabeth Islands. These areas were historically home to the highest native densities in New England and today are home to the highest concentrations of endangered species and rare open land habitats in the region.

Our study contradicts the theory that people had significant ecological impacts in southern New England before the arrival of Europeans. Instead, it reveals that ancient forests, shaped by climate change and natural processes, have prevailed throughout the region for thousands of years.

Native populations in southern New England have peaked twice in the past few millennia: 5,000-3,000 years ago, during what archaeologists call the Late Archaic Period, and 1,500-500 years ago, a period known as the Middle Forest. late. During those times when native populations were relatively high, we found no evidence of logging, high fire use or widespread agriculture. Interestingly, fire activity was high only 10,000-8,000 years ago, a period that was substantially drier than today, with low human populations.

Naturally, the indigenous people of New England used and depended on a wide variety of natural resources: they hunted, fished, searched for and cultivated some edible plants. Pre-colonial societies were complex, widespread, and vast, with populations of tens of thousands. But evidence suggests they didn’t use fire to open up large swaths of the landscape for agriculture. Rather, for more than 10,000 years, these highly adaptable people have changed their activities seasonally in the landscape, exploiting a wide range of resources and exerting limited and most likely highly localized ecological impacts in general.

From dense forests to more open lands
So, if Native Americans didn’t clear forests and create open lands in southern New England, how and when did open grasslands, shrubs, and woodlands originate today?

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