How Environmentally Friendly Were Native Americans?

I had always thought the answer was, “very.” There is a great mythology that early inhabitants of the Americas lived at peace with mother earth and were generally good stewards of the environment. I was somewhat surprised (not really), then, to find out that the story is a little more complex. In fact, a new paper (gated) suggests that pre-Columbian Americans may have cleared such large swaths of Amazonian forests that, after European encounters wiped out 95% of the native population, the regrown of forests helped induce the so-called Little Ice Age (LIA), which lasted from 1500 to 1750. That’s a lot of forest burning. The authors examined previously unavailable charcoal records along with demographic data (and a lot of evidence from previous studies). They posit that anthropogenic forest clearing by fire was more widespread than previously thought as large settlements of Native Americans made space for settled agriculture. After nearly all of the native population died after post-Columbian European expansion, these forests had a chance to replenish. This caused large amounts of CO2 to be sequestered from the atmosphere and cooled the earth, contributing to the the LIA.

The paper builds on early work by William Ruddiman, which is still controversial. (You can read a non-technical version of his research here). His paper, which appears in the journal Climactic Change, argues that a reexamination of CO2 and CH4 records show that anthropogenic climate change actually started 8,000 years ago rather than the 150 or so typically believed. Interesting stuff, though I’m a sucker for heterodoxy.

Another troupe that I’ve often heard is that Native Americans lived more in harmony with members of the animal kingdom, but it turns out they might have hunted native horses, elephants, and mammoths to extinction (though climate cycles also likely played a roll).

Undoubtedly, Native Americans were more environmentally friendly in some respects. I don’t, for example, believe that there was a pre-Columbian analog to the nearly 4 billion plastic bags worldwide that are now pieces of liter, as I reported yesterday. All the same, I think romantic notions about ancient native civilizations that were somehow “in balance” with nature—in opposition to the current state, which is “out of balance”—are fundamentally naive. It seems to me that one fundamental experience of all animal species, including humans, is to try to master the environment around them toward their continued survival(given a specific level of “technology” available at the time. This has different implications depending on the species, but importantly I don’t think it is a phenomenon that resulted from the rise of modern capitalism. Although, I have been wrong before.

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