Friday, December 03, 2004

Unnatural Abundance

Soon after Europeans arrived, European diseases killed 90 percent or more of the hemisphere's original inhabitants - at least 30 million people, and possibly 100 million, according to most recent estimates.
I had no idea that the % was that high, or that that many Indians died. That is a massive number that dwarfs the plague.
Above the Rio Grande, Indians' principal land-management tool was fire, used to create and maintain open, game-friendly forests and grazing lands. Native pyromania created a third or more of the Midwestern prairie; fire kept Eastern forests so open that the first European colonists reported being able to ride through the woods in carriages. In California, Oregon, Texas and a hundred other places, Indian burning governed the conditions under which other species thrived or failed.

When disease carried away native societies, the torches went out. Trees and underbrush erupted in ways that had not been seen for millennia, filling in areas kept open by Indian axes and Indian fire. "Almost wherever the European went, forests followed," wrote the ecological historian Stephen Pyne. Far from destroying wilderness, in other words, European settlers created it - only it was a peculiar, unprecedented kind of wilderness, shot through with European invaders and characterized by population outbreaks from species that had formerly been uncommon.

Bison, elk, moose and pigeon were all kept down by Indians - the big mammals by hunting, the pigeon because Indians both ate it and competed with it for the nuts on which it depended. The huge herds and flocks seen by Europeans were evidence not of American bounty but of Indian absence.
I had no idea that the untamed west was actually the re-untamed west. It is nice to know there if there is ever a biological weapon that wipes out the majority of humans, at least it will be good for the environment.

via New York Times

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