Thursday, October 22

Burn the forest to better protect it … for 1,500 years in Quebec

Before the arrival of Europeans, did the natives of New England burn forests to make way for fields? The question has provoked a pitched battle among anthropologists since last winter. Whether the answer is yes or no, the implications are startling.

Mathieu Perreault
Mathieu Perreault

Unspoiled forests

At the origin of the controversy, we find a type of lightly wooded plain called “open land” in English. “It’s a very rich ecosystem in biodiversity,” says Wyatt Oswald, ecologist at Emerson College in Boston, who is the lead author of the study published in January in the journal Nature Sustainability. “The consensus was that this type of green space appeared with the adoption of sedentary agriculture by the natives. So in the case of New England, 700 to 900 years ago. With the analysis of pollen and charcoal in the sediments of 13 lakes in southern New England, over more than 10,000 years, we show that the region was covered with forest until the arrival of Europeans. There is also very little variation in the amount of charcoal in the sediments, while there is significant variation in the precolonial population. ”


Drawing of growing corn in The voyages of the Sieur de Champlain, published in 1613

Clean the undergrowth


Controlled fire in La Mauricie park

In July, Nature Sustainability published two very strong critiques of Mr. Oswald’s study. “The January study does not take into account the peculiarity of indigenous forest management,” said Marc Abrams, ecologist at Penn State University, who signed one of the two critiques. “It’s not about burning entire forests to convert them into large fields, as we do today. This involves clearing clearings for small fields, for hamlets, and clearing the undergrowth to favor certain species of trees used to build canoes and which give nutritious acorns, and to facilitate movement and hunt. This type of low intensity fire does not necessarily produce a lot of lake coal. ”

Colonialism and environmentalism

Mr. Oswald’s other critic, Christopher Roos of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, believes that current relations with indigenous people must be taken into account. “To say that the natives did not manage their forests is to endorse the discourse of ‘manifest destiny’ which justified the expulsion of the natives from their lands in the American West in the 19th century.e century, says Roos. The ‘destiny’ of the United States was to exploit to its full potential the lands left fallow by the natives. “To illustrate the potential drifts of the errors of paleontology, Mr. Roos quotes the book The Future Eaters, by Australian paleontologist Tim Flannery, published in 1994. “Flannery wrote that the first inhabitants of Australia, when they arrived 40,000 to 60,000 years ago, exterminated large mammals. The reality is more complex, but his book has been cited to justify deforestation on the one hand, and the denial of land rights to natives on the other. ”


Deliberate fire in a field in Georgia

And in Quebec?

In 2018, in the review Quaternary Science Reviews, Quebec researchers have shown that for 1500 years, there have been traces of fires deliberately started by humans in southern Quebec. “These are results quite similar to Oswald, we see an impact, but it is very very minor compared to the colonial era,” explains Christian Gates St-Pierre, anthropologist from the University of Montreal who was not among the authors of the 2018 study. “But we still saw a slight tendency to increase before the European era, when the villages became permanent in the 13th century.e century in the St. Lawrence Valley, while Oswald seems to say that the impact is almost zero. I also agree with Abrams that certain types of burns, for brushing, leave less traces. ”

Algonquins and Iroquoians


Illustration of the siege of the Iroquois village of Onondaga by Champlain and the Hurons, published in the Champlain’s Marine Treaty in 1632

The debate between MM. Oswald, Roos and Abrams are hiding another, about the Algonquins who inhabited southern New England. They are related to the Algonquins (Anichinabe) of the Ottawa Valley, from which they were separated by the arrival of the Iroquoians in the St. Lawrence Valley 1,500 to 2,500 years ago. “I have colleagues who think there are going to be permanent Algonquin villages in southern New England, but I doubt it,” says Elizabeth Chilton, archaeologist at Washington State University, who is co-signer of Mr. Oswald’s study in January. “The Algonquins of southern New England lived in one place for three to six months, near their fields, and then found another location the following year. By comparison, the Iroquoians, a group that includes the Iroquois and Huron-Wendat, transitioned 700 to 800 years ago to permanent farming villages that could accommodate many more people, 1,000 people. Why did the Algonquins not make the transition from temporary farming villages to permanent farming villages, like the Iroquoians? “The permanent villages where the diet is based on maize are no better,” says Mme Chilton. Yes, there are many more people, but they have cavities, suffer from frequent malnutrition and famines, and there are social inequalities because the elite monopolizes the crops. I think the Iroquoians transition happened by accident. The problem is that people who adopt a permanent way of life cannot go back. The Algonquin way of life was much more sustainable. But aren’t the “open lands” created by the permanent Iroquoian villages more favorable to biodiversity, and therefore created by a desirable evolution? “We had a debate on the subject with my environmental colleagues, who did not want us to comment on the positive or negative nature of this transition”, says Mme Chilton.


Deliberate fire in a Washington state forest

Coal sediments

Mr. Abrams says low-intensity fires, such as removing brush in undergrowth, yield little or no charcoal in lake sediments. Mr. Oswald thinks this is not the case. “There should even be more charcoal when the fire is at a lower temperature,” says Oswald. Who is right ? Few studies exist on the subject, one of which is published by Mr. Abrams. The latter also quotes a study published in 1997 in the book Sediment Records of Biomass Burning and Climate Change. Press asked one of the 1997 study’s authors, Boone Kauffman of Oregon State University, for a decision. Mr. Kauffman has been careful. “I don’t think you can say that low-intensity fires don’t produce charcoal,” Kauffman says. If there is a lot of biomass burned, there will be a lot of charcoal, even at low intensity. ”

West Coast fires


A wildfire rages on near Pillsbury Lake in northern California on September 16.

Mr. Abrams believes that Mr. Oswald’s study is part of the “myth of the good savage”, the idea that the natives were in harmony with nature before the arrival of Europeans, and therefore that managing forests by fires deliberate is not “natural”. “Rather, it is an essential tool for reducing the risk of forest fires,” says Abrams. We see this with the current fires on the West Coast, which in my opinion are directly related to the restrictions on the traditional management of forests by fires, by the natives of the region, from the beginning of the XXe century. With climate change, it has given a lot of fuel for the fires. ”

Precolonial agriculture in three dates

500 BC

First Iroquoian archaeological traces in Quebec, Ontario and northern New York State

From 800 to 900 AD

Arrival of corn cultivation in New England and southern Quebec

From 1200 to 1300 AD

Transformation of temporary agricultural villages into permanent villages that can shelter up to a thousand people, among the Iroquois (Iroquois, Hurons and Iroquoians of the St. Lawrence, among others)

Source: University of Montreal

Precolonial demography in figures

From 20,000 to 35,000

Number of Huron-Wendats before the arrival of Europeans

From 10,000 to 20,000

Number of Iroquois before the arrival of Europeans

From 12,000 to 20,000

Number of Algonquins (Anichinabe) in Canada before Europeans arrived

From 70,000 to 100,000

Population of New England before the arrival of Europeans

Sources: Canadian Encyclopedia, Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life, Statistics Canada, Changes in the Land

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