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Ongoing Debate: The Role of Climate Versus Fire in Shaping the Pre-European Landscape

July 29, 2020
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HF researchers Wyatt Oswald and David Foster engaged in a lively exchange in the journal Nature Sustainability concerning their paper with Bryan Shuman, Elizabeth Chilton, Dianna Doucette, and Deena Duranleau, Conservation implications of limited Native American impacts in pre-contact New England.  The original article documented that climate rather than people was the predominant force shaping the forested southern New England landscape until European colonists began to clear it in the 1600s.  Newly published comments by Christopher Roos and Marc Abrams and Greg Nowacki on the January 2020 Nature Sustainability drew a reply and an extended commentary by the HF team of ecologists, paleoecologists, and archaeologists that highlighted the need to employ long-term continuous records from pollen, charcoal, and archaeology to interpret the distinctive and highly successful role that Native Americans played in New England over more than ten thousand years.  The reply also underscored the fallibility of the scattered accounts that are commonly relied on by historians and ecologists to interpret Native American land use practices.  These accounts provide anecdotal snapshots of a brief period of cultural devastation and change recorded by colonizing Europeans who were beginning to transform the landscape in myriad ways.

Contributed by: David Foster

(Photograph by Elizabeth Chilton)

Photo caption: Co-authors Dianna Doucette and Deena Duranleau, with Randy Jardin (center), a cultural resources representative of the Wampanoag Tribe of Aquinnah, on one of the Martha’s Vineyard archaeological sites that contributed to the paper in Nature Sustainability.

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