Environmental History Essay
During the last ice age, around 13,500 years ago, a number of people from other continents came to North America to find food. They have been able to walk across the Bering Land Bridge from Siberia and Alaska. This was likely possible because during that period the sea level were lower that it is today. The melting of the glaciers has cleared some passage for the Alaskan to spread and colonize areas throughout South America within the period of 1,000 years. In their conquest, these people had a major impact on the ecology and wildlife to which they have been destined.
Studies on the archeological findings stated that prior to the coming of the early North Americans, the lands were covered with lush vegetation and large species of mammals and birds. The herbivores even included 3 species of elephants such as the woolly elephants, the giant mammoths and the mastodons. Such animals which are common were giant animals like bison, ground sloths, armadillos, beaver and tortoises. Giant predators also are preying on different herbivores. Such predators were the cheetahs, saber-toothed tigers, lions and giant wolves.
Most of these large predators have migrated from the boreal forests of Canada to live in the forest of North America. Animal remains of these unimaginable sizes and power of these animals have been found but where and why these species have vanished is a questionable issue. Tim Flannery’s book The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and Its Peoples concluded that during the coming of the early North Americans there was what he call the “Pleistocene Overkill”.
He hypothesized that during the colonization of humans and reaching far across the continents, they almost wiped out large herbivores through hunting. Large animals were more noticeable thus making them prime targets. Their low reproductive rates cannot compensate for the losses because of frequent hunting. When these animals became extinct, their predators became extinct as well. The extinction of the predators made an impact in the extinction of large scavenger birds.
Only animals which can prey on and frequent the oceans did not suffer high extinction rates during this time. (Moyle & Orland, 2004). There are also evidences that the early North American people has manipulated their surroundings and that they have modified their environment as based on observation of settlers from Europe. The settlers have documented that Indians shaped their environment through the use of fire especially during the late summer to minimize the valley’s underbrush and reduce the number of trees.
This is to facilitate hunting and do their gathering. While the American Indians are moving across seasonally while using fire for easy game hunting, the European settlers made themselves fences and farmhouses as well and bringing with them domesticated animals and crops. The Europeans however, have influenced some of the Indians to properly control or stop the use of fire and introduced to them the proper use of land use and establishing properties and boundaries for their domain (Northwest, 1998).
Eyewitness accounts from the early European explorers, trappers, soldiers and missionaries affirmed that prior to their settlement the wilderness were not pristine but rather the product of remains of thousands of years of usage and management by Native Americans. The Native Americans’ management also has consequences on their ecosystems and one example is the extinction of most large mammal species in North America between 10,800 and 10,000 years ago. This is probably the result of hunting practices of Paleo-Indians as previously mentioned and with the effect of rapid environmental changes.
Once again the setting of fires for hunting, land clearance, warfare and signaling as well as forest fires contributed to the degradation of forest and ecology in the pre-modern American era (Bonnicksen, 2000). Based from The Ecological Indian: Myth and History by Shepard Krech III, the Paleo-Indians had a great role in the extinction of animal species in North America. Krech believe that Paleo-Indians played great role in the Pleistocene extinctions about 11,000 years ago when many indigenous animal species in North America vanished.
Severe climate changes however were also contributory to the extinctions of such animals. Krech uphold that there was actually human intervention in the exploitation and extinction of animals in that period because of two important evidence. Such were the findings of Paleo-Indian artifacts with the remains of extinct animals and the fact that there was already the extinction of animals before the arrival of European settlers in North America. Notably, the use of fire by the North American Indians was widespread as an important method for their subsistence.
Fire is also used for communication, aggression and travel. Notably, vast tracts of forest lands were burned so that animals may move out and go to a place where they could be easily hunted. These aboriginals thus destroyed the habitats of elk, deer, buffaloes, wolves and beaver thus killing them for their meat and fur (Orton, 1999). At the time of the arrival of the Europeans, many Indians were already farmers. Farmers in the East and Southwest were raising corns, beans, pumpkins and squash which are necessary for their subsistence because five thousand years ago, agriculture was already a practice in America.
By 1500, millions of acres of were already cleared and planted crops by the indigenous people. Furthermore, there was a constant set of fire to more hundreds of millions of acres to improve game habitat, clearance for travel, reduce insect pests and to enhance conditions to grow berries. Vast areas of forest landscape in the West and East and park-like open spaces are usually smoking with low-intensity fires. Even in New England, Indians burn their woods twice in a year. The frequent burning of forest has created wide open grasslands which were formerly forests.
Such indication of human disturbances and alteration in the ecological system were the proliferation of game animals such as the wild turkeys, white-tailed deer, ruffled grouse and other species commonly live only on forest edges and openings. By the end of the early 1600s, bison were roaming the prairies in the south and reached as far as Far East (Maccleery, 1999). The migration of early European settlers to North America, however, has introduced the barter and trade practices with the Native Americans. One of the most earliest and important industries in that period was the fur trade.
The fur trade industry has played a great factor in the development of America and Canada for more than three centuries. The trade began in the 1500’s as an exchange of goods between Indians and Europeans and other tools and weapons as well. The Beaver fur was the most valuable of all the furs being traded. The earliest traders of furs in North America were the French explorers and fishermen who came to a place which is now Eastern Canada. With the scarcity of fur-bearing animals particularly the beavers, North Americans and Eskimos set traps as far as Canada.
British and French empires were set in America because of fur trade in the early 1600’s. The prospect of wealth with this venture has brought Europeans to the New World thus the establishment of many trading posts in the wilderness. As settlements grew, states were established and later became such major cities as Detroit, New Orleans, and St. Louis. While in Canada, Edmonton, Montreal, Quebec and Winnipeg were also established. Because of its promising wealth venture, the fur trade has created a conflict between France and Great Britain in the American land.
There were rivalries over trading and alliances between Indian tribes and other traders. Hostilities however, were shown by other Indians toward white settlers because the settlers prevented the Indians from clearing the forest with burning thus preventing the production of fur-bearing animals. With such disproportionate conflict, border between the United States and Canada were formed. But in the 1700’s, the fur trade started to decline in the Eastern United States as a result from the clearing of large tracts of lands for settlement.
As the clearings grew wider, fur-bearing animals increasingly became scarce as well which hurt the trade in the Western America and Western Canada. Silk was found to be an alternative for clothing and accessories when fur-trading was stopped by 1870’s (Stuart, 2007). In conclusion to this, as stated by Shephard Krech III on his Reflections on Conservation, Sustainability, and Environmentalism in Indigenous North America, he has his own debate if really the old North Americans are environmentalists, ecologists or conservationist.
As he has mentioned other facts rather than being in assuring, enough evidence must be drawn to come up with more solid proof that indeed they were. However, there is more information and evidence that showed generally, they have not been properly treated their environment in the proper perspective because what they all need in that period was to survive in the midst of a dark and forested land. The American Indians of today, however, are one of the most visible groups in rallying for the preservation of their land, their domain and their culture as well.
University/College: University of Chicago
Type of paper: Thesis/Dissertation Chapter
Date: 18 February 2017
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