Conservation implications of limited Native American impacts in pre-contact New England


An increasingly accepted paradigm in conservation attributes valued modern ecological conditions to past human activities. Disturbances, including prescribed fire, are therefore used by land managers to impede forest development in many potentially wooded landscapes under the interpretation that openland habitats were created and sustained by human-set fire for millennia. We test this paradigm using palaeoenvironmental and archaeological data from New England. Despite the region’s dense population, anthropogenic impacts on the landscape before European contact were limited, and fire activity was independent of changes in human populations. Whereas human populations reached maxima during the Late Archaic (5,000–3,000 yr bp) and Middle–Late Woodland (1,500–500 yr bp) periods, lake-sediment charcoal records indicate elevated fire activity only during the dry early Holocene (10,000–8,000 yr bp) and after European colonization. Pollen data indicate closed forests from 8,000 yr bp to the onset of European deforestation, and archaeological evidence of pre-contact horticultural activity is sparse. Climate largely controlled fire severity in New England during the postglacial interval, and widespread openlands developed only after deforestation for European agriculture. Land managers seeking to emulate pre-contact conditions should de-emphasize human disturbance and focus on developing mature forests; those seeking to maintain openlands should apply the agricultural approaches that initiated them four centuries ago.

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Fig. 1: Maps of southern New England showing study sites and archaeological data.
Fig. 2: Postglacial palaeoenvironmental and archaeological data from southern New England.
Fig. 3: Postglacial climate, vegetation and fire in southern New England.
Fig. 4: Late-Holocene palaeoenvironmental and archaeological data from southern New England.

Data availability

The data that support the findings of this study are available from the corresponding author upon request.


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We thank D. Donnelly, E. Doughty, E. Faison, B. Hall, B. Hansen, K. Kirakosian, D. MacDonald, T. Parshall, M. Patel and E. Taylor for their contributions. D. Orwig, N. Pederson and S. Munoz provided constructive feedback. Data were provided by the USA National Phenology Network. This research was supported by National Science Foundation grant nos DBI‐0452254, DBI‐1003938, DBI‐1459519, DEB‐0620443, DEB‐0815036, DEB-0816731, DEB‐0952792, DEB‐1146207, DEB-1146286, DEB‐1146297 and DEB‐1237491.

Author information

W.W.O., D.R.F., B.N.S., E.S.C., D.L.Doucette and D.L.Duranleau designed the project and participated in fieldwork, laboratory work and/or data analyses. W.W.O. and D.R.F. wrote the first version of the paper. W.W.O., D.R.F., B.N.S., E.S.C., D.L.Doucette and D.L.Duranleau contributed to the final version.

Correspondence to W. Wyatt Oswald.

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Oswald, W.W., Foster, D.R., Shuman, B.N. et al. Conservation implications of limited Native American impacts in pre-contact New England. Nat Sustain (2020).

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