By Charlotte Hsu, University at Buffalo
Fire-tolerant trees that bear edible nuts were unusually abundant near the historical sites of Native American villages, research suggests
A new study by University at Buffalo geographers explores how humans altered the arboreal make-up of Western New York forests before European settlers arrived in large numbers.
The research looked at land survey data from around 1799-1814, and used this information to model which tree species were present in different areas of Chautauqua County, New York, at that time.
The analysis placed hickory, chestnut and oak trees in larger-than-expected numbers near the historical sites of Native American villages, said co-author Steve Tulowiecki, who conducted the research as a geography PhD candidate at the University at Buffalo and is now an adjunct lecturer of geography at SUNY Geneseo. This finding is important because these species produce edible nuts, and are also more likely than many other trees to survive fires.
“Our results contribute to the conversation about how natural or humanized the landscape of America was when Europeans first arrived,” Tulowiecki said. “Our society has competing views about this: On one hand, there is the argument that it was a wilderness relatively untouched by man. Recently, we’ve had this perspective challenged, with some saying that the landscape was dramatically altered, particularly through burning and other clearance practices.”
The findings of the new research — more fire-tolerant, large-nut-bearing trees than expected within about 15 kilometers of village sites — suggest that Native American communities in the study area modified the forest in ways that favored those species, Tulowiecki said. He noted that flame-sensitive beech and sugar maples, which burn readily in forest fires, appeared in smaller numbers than expected near village sites.
Forest modifications may have impacted upwards of 20 percent of total land area in modern-day Chautauqua County, according to Tulowiecki’s analysis.
The research is important, he said, because it uses data to address questions surrounding historical forest modification.
“There have been contentious debates over the past few decades regarding the spatial extent of Native American impacts upon pre-European landscapes,” he said. “Yet, very few studies have offered exhaustive methods to understand or quantify these impacts. Our study utilizes advanced quantitative models, geographic information systems, original land survey data, and historical-archaeological records of Native American settlement in order to understand these impacts.”
Top Image: These are the leaves of a white oak. A new analysis of data suggests that oak trees were more abundant than expected near the historical sites of Native-American villages in Chautauqua County. Credit: Steve Tulowiecki