The keynote speaker at the Society of American Foresters national convention in Orlando (10/1/2009) was Charles C. Mann, the author of 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. In this fascinating book, Mann shows that the Native American civilizations very significantly impacted the environment of North and South America in the centuries before the Europeans came.
Mann shows that it wasn't just the Aztecs, the Mayans, and the Incans who made the changes. Indians in the Amazon Basin manufactured thousands of acres of fertile soil from broken pottery and charcoal to grown their crops. They also planted fruit and nut trees extensively throughout the area. The Indians of North America thinned the forests with fire to ease travel and to make hunting better. They also bred corn to become the crop we find so useful today and extended the range where corn could be grown.
The great tragedy Mann describes was the widespread deaths of Indians from infections of the Eurasian diseases to which they had no immunity. Unlike Europe and Asia, the Indians found no domestic animals in the Americas. Consequently they didn't experience the flu and other diseases and had no immunity. Once the European settlers arrived they found an essentially depopulated continent where the forests had grown back thicker than they had been in thousands of years.
With Columbus weekend upon us, what is the signifcance of these new archaeological discoveries for forestry? Many environmentalists believe that before 1492 there was a veritable Garden of Eden in the Americas, where the Indians lived, but had no noticeable effect on the environment. Consequently, the best policy would be to return to these pre-Columbus conditions and return the environment to its pristine state. But if there was no Eden, then we have the responsibility to manage the forests for the use people and to ensure sustainability. It's just that there is no perfect state to return to. It's up to us to figure out what we want the forests to look like!