Prehistoric Environmental Destruction

One more nail gets driven into the coffin of the “ecological Indian”, you know that guy who lived in complete harmony with nature before the Europeans arrived here in 1492.

The NY Times summarizes a recent study by Torben Rick (Smithsonian Institution) and Jon Erlandson (U. of Oregon) that documents evidence of sometimes serious environmental damage by early inhabitants along the coasts of the Aleutian Islands, New England, the Gulf of Mexico, South Africa and California’s Channel Islands. In the New World, some of this goes back to Paleoindian times.

Though almost a generation apart, both Rick and Erlandson got their doctorates at UC Santa Barbara and their fieldwork is mostly on the Channel Islands. The article tells us what they’ve seen there:

“… Erlandson …, said people who lived on the Channel Islands as much as 13,000 years ago left behind piles of shells and bones, called middens, that offer clues to how they altered their landscape.

‘We have shell middens that are full of sea urchins,’ Dr. Erlandson said. He said he and Dr. Rick theorized that the sea urchins became abundant when hunting depleted the sea otters that prey on them. In turn, the sea urchins would have severely damaged the underwater forests of kelp on which they fed.

‘These effects cascade down the ecosystem,’Dr. Erlandson said.”

And as Erlandson points out later, remains of much of the Late Pleistocene/Early Holocene use (and abuse) of the coasts is hidden from us due to sea levels rising to their modern point.

In a similar vein is this study which indicates that carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by slash and burn agricultural methods, may have started altering the planet’s climate several thousand years ago.

3 thoughts on “Prehistoric Environmental Destruction”

  1. I think there is no question that Native American(and other so-called "primitive" cultures) had a VASTLY superior cultural philosophy about getting along with Nature instead of trying to conquer it, as in comparison to the invading Europeans. But were they always so enlightened? Or perhaps wasteful, destructive ecological blunders in the ancient past eventually led to that harmonizing-with-one's-environment outlook. And these are lessons we are all having to relearn yet again in modern times….L.B.

  2. Well maybe they altered the climate a little. But for a little context consider that sea levels (used here as a crude proxy for warming) really started rising with vigor about 13,000 years ago, before the advent of agriculture. At that time the coastline was about 380 feet lower than today. 9000 years ago San Francisco Bay was a dry valley, this at a time when natives were most likely in hot pursuit of elk and deer under what are now ship channels and halibut haunts. 3000 years ago it is believed that NO glaciers were left in the Sierras. Since then they enlarged pretty dramatically, but have again shrunk back down to nearly nothing.


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