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Use of Fire by Native Americans

The role of fire was dramatically increased with the arrival of aboriginal man in America about 14,000 BP (before present). Hunting and gathering characterized their progressively more sophisticated cultures until the advent of settled societies after 3,000 BP in the eastern woodlands (Fagan 2000). Beginning about 6,000 BP (Middle Holocene), warmer climates and final wastage of the Laurentide Ice Sheet (Delcourt and Delcourt 1981, 1983) translated into increased food resources and rapid population growth. By 5,000 BP, sea level had stabilized, and vegetation patterns were essentially as we find them today.

After this rapid population growth, more or less permanent settlements appeared, primarily in river valleys and rich bottomland soils from the Coastal Plain to the mountains (Fagan 2000). After 3,000 BP, population pressures led to cultivation of native plants typical of disturbed habitats. After 1,000 BP, corn cultivation was widespread (Hudson 1982) and bean cultivation by 800 BP (Smith 1994), but hunting and gathering were still prominent activities. Population density was probably greater in the southern than in the northern part of the eastern woodlands and greater on the coast than inland, but higher densities extended inland along major rivers (Driver 1961).

Judging the extent to which forests and other vegetation were influenced by Native American use of fire requires knowledge of the typical pattern of land use and the population levels before European contact (Kemmerer and Lake 2001). Williams (1992, p. 40, fig. 2.8) presented a concept of a typical southern woodland village. Located on a stream or river, the clearing for the village and surrounding fields of mostly corn, beans, and squash extended for 4 miles. Girdling larger trees and burning the undergrowth cleared this area originally, and burning kept it open, in much the way that swidden agriculture occurs in the tropics today. The field zone was buffered by a further 1.25-mile-wide zone that was burned annually for defense (visibility), where fuel wood and berry gathering took place. Another 1- to 2.5-mile-wide zone was burned frequently for small game and foraging. This entire disturbance complex was surrounded by closed forest. Nearby was a large zone kept in open grassland by burning for large game animals. Except in river floodplains, this village complex had to be moved periodically as soil fertility was reduced in the continuously cropped fields and as nearby fuel wood was exhausted. To maintain proximity to open grassland for hunting, successive village sites were probably within 6 to 25 miles of each other.

Pyne (1997) described the careful use of fire by Native Americans. Cereal grasses were fired annually, basket grasses and nut trees every 3 years, and the grassy savanna hunting areas annually. Brush and undergrowth in forests were burned for visibility and game every 7 to 10 years. Fire also was used to drive and surround game (Hudson 1982) and reduce the threat of wildfires, especially along the coast, where pines dominated and lightning provided an ignition source. Even in areas of the Southern Appalachian Mountains that were sparsely settled and not prime hunting ground, major trails that followed rivers were kept open by burning, and escaped campfires probably caused large areas to burn.

The preponderance of anecdotal (Stewart 1963, Williams 1992), archeological (Dobyns 1966, 1983; Jacobs 1974), ecological (Delcourt and Delcourt 1997, 1998; Hamel and Buckner 1998), and meteorological evidence supports the conclusion that fire was a widespread occurrence in the pre-European landscape. The full extent of Native American impact, however, hinges on estimates of population levels. Until recently, it was thought that the earliest estimates, made after European settlement, represented precontact levels, and Native American populations declined only after sustained exposure to European diseases. A contrasting view, first presented by Dobyns (1983) but built on earlier work, assumed diseases were spread even without direct physical contact between Europeans and Native Americans. Thus, even the earliest census estimates reflected populations already decimated by disease, by as much as 95 percent. Dobyns (1983) estimated North American populations as high as 18 million at the beginning of the 16th century, in contrast to previously accepted estimates of less than 1 million (Fagan 2000). Archeological evidence in the Lower Mississippi River Valley was used by Ramenovsky (1987) to test contrasting hypotheses of how diseases spread and their effect on Native American populations. She found evidence of widespread declines during the 16th century, after the DeSoto expedition (1538–41) and before French settlement began in the late 17th century. Generally accepted estimates of population levels are more conservatively placed at between 9.8 million and 12.25 million for North America (Fagan 2000, Ramenovsky 1987, Williams 1992).

Estimates of the cleared land needed to support a person range from 0.33 acres (2.3 acres when fallowing is taken into account) to 30 to 40 acres for all cleared and burned land (Williams 1992). For argument’s sake, we can assume that half the population of 12 million was part of the eastern woodland culture involved in the sedentary lifestyle described above, and that each person represented 10 to 20 burned acres. The 60 million to 120 million acres thus estimated to be affected by clearing and burning would constitute 22 to 44 percent of the cropland acreage presently farmed in the 31 Eastern States (Williams 1992). The point is not to accept the size of the number but to appreciate the magnitude of Native American impact on the landscape through the use of fire.

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content: John Stanturf
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created: 4-OCT-2002
modified: 08-Dec-2013