Friday, May 7, 2021

Gathering the Bones, XXIII: Wyandotte Days

So. Precolumbian deforestation. Or the reverse! 

My interest in Fenimore Cooper's 1843 Wyandotte: Or, the Hutted Knoll, is currently confined to the introduction, which describes the creation of the eponymous patent in the western(!) New York wilderness somewhere between the headwaters of the Delaware and the Susquehanna. In it, Cooper describes how the patent, once located and cleared of Indian title, is created, by breaking a giant beaver dam and draining a vast low saucer of land, at once creating a large and fertile farmscape, devoid of tree trunks. Various adventures set in the American Revolution, follow which I may follow up on at some point, at the end of which all that is left are the ruins of the mansion and fort built on the rocky hill, or "hutted knoll" at the centre of the pond. 

The image of a hill, surmounted by a chieftain's hut, in the middle of a flood seems to be referring to the spring renewal/creation myth and to the obligatory hutted mound/pyramid which has been the ritual centre of city settlements in indigenous North American civilisations  since Olmec times, and extending up until at least Cahokia. Turning the flood into the breaking of a beaver pond seems to add another layer of allegory referring to the fur trade, and to its later end, when the beaver was driven out of the Eastern Seaboard to make way for farmland. At least as a hypothesis, it makes sense that the beginning of the fur trade would have seen a change in attitude towards the beaver, one that might well have had a significant effect on the landscape. Cooper talks a great deal about the cycle of civilisations, and while I am dependent on a Cliff's Note summary in talking about the "ancient ruins" of Wyandotte, as they appeared to the returning heir to the patent in 1795, in Wept of Wish-ton-Wish, Cooper quite explicitly refers to the fort at the centre of the little settlement of Wish-ton-Wish as having been built on an ancient ruin. 

Does the planting of Wyandotte restore the pre-fur trading status quo of the "hutted knoll?" Probably not. Probably I'm reading too much into it; but we do have some interesting evidence for shifting populations and ecological change in the right time frame. While it continues to be analyzed in terms of a disease-driven demographic collapse, in this post I want to explore the possibility that the evidence we have is explicable in terms of human agency. God knows there's not a lot of effort made to think outside of the box in  terms of American antiquity, Mormons apart (Bless their souls.)  The frontier and the west confuses us.

The paper in question "combines multiple methods" of estimating the pre-Columbian population to arrive at an impressive "High Count" number of some 60 millions of people in the Western Hemisphere in 1492. That's a lot of people to feed with Neolithic agriculture, but I'm not a famous author published in Quaternary Sciences, so what do I know? The epidemics then kill of 90% of the population, which while certainly in the traditional range of numbers seems to assume an entirely synchronic process, as they all die, and die quickly. It's not just mortality, it is a mortality that overwhelms the population's demographic resilience. It needs to be over quickly, so that the global decline in atmospheric carbon by 7--10 ppm can be complete by 1600, in time for the Little Ice Age. 

At the risk of succumbing to just world fallacy, I find neither high end population estimates nor the high end demographic loss estimates convincing. We are talking about Neolithic agricultural practices and disease epidemics unlike any scientifically observed in human populations. That being said, the argument isn't that the carbon sequestration must have happened. The authors turn to something called the "Global Charcoal Database" to estimate the extent of decline in swidden farming  in the key period, and couple that with local studies showing a decline in intensive agriculture at various locations. This isn't entirely convincing, in that "firestick agriculture" is just one paradigm for the Stone Age use of fire. Fire is also used, especially in more northerly climes, to break the canopy and maintain browse. In fact, many supposedly pristine, treeless ecologies in North America were actually curated by hunter gatherer populations. As I was taught lo those many years ago in first year urban geography, even in BC's Lower Mainland we have the 10,000 hectares of Burns Bog, where multiple fire strata show First Nations curation to maintain the open bog, with its massive berry crops and heavy browse.  Since settlement, 7000 hectares of the bog have been turned over to farming. An end to fire does not necessarily mean a reduced intensification of food production.

Though it is an end to fire, and will lead to plant successions, which may well lead to carbon sequestration. 

Quaintly enough, the Quaternary Science study has a map of areas of demonstrated depopulation in the 1500-1600 period with handy little dots scattered around the Greater Toronto Area, denoting "no depopulation." Archaeologists prefer to ground their generalisations in digs, and the dots denote some famous digs in old Huronia: The Aurora, Draper, Mantle and Ratcliffe Sites together ground our understanding of human events in deepest Huronia through early European contact. Gary Warrick estimates a regional population in the range of 50,000 and rulesout a depopulation prior to 1623, while Jennifer Birch notes both a pattern of population coalescence, and, more interestingly, a tendency to move up hill towards defensible positions well away from the floodplains. (Warrick's and Birch's theses are currently maintained online and are accessible via the Wikipedia articles, if you want to dabble.) 

To bring this a bit closer to Wyandotte, and also to the other end of Iroquia, the National Park Service's extensive salvage archaeology project along the banks of the Chesapeake and Ohio canal similarly finds extensive floodplain settlements such as the Luray Site. These were abandoned by the early 1600s, when, again, the NPS pegs the depopulation event. In contrast to the Ontario surveys, American archaeology is unable to point to settlement relocations: the NPS survey was by design confined to the floodplains and the story of pre-Columbian settlement in the Potomac portion of the Great Valley is impossible to tease out with the same clarity as Ontario's due to high population and a longer history of post-colonial settlement. 

However, we do know that by the early 1600s, the Mohawks were occupying their "castles" along major tributary streams of the Mohawk river. Where it is visible to witnesses or archaeology, this movement up off the floodplains does seem to be happening. Researchers in Huronia and the lower Potomac even have an explanation: warfare. Specifically, whatever the exogenous effects of epidemic disease, the Beaver Wars of the Seventeenth Century consolidated populations and opened up landscapes for fur production.  The Beaver Wars would offer a simple and elegant explanation for North America's role in the great Sixteenth Century carbon sequestration --were it not that they came too late. That being said,  an earlier wave of beaver wars along the littoral is not out of the question. New England, and particularly Maine, had an enormous beaver population in 1600, and while New England is not a big place, the 55 million abandoned hectares that the Quaternary Science study requires is only large in terms of the ambitiously high population counts the study proposes; and these are more or less required by the hypothesis, which has this land being abandoned to regrowth due to a lapse in the high intensity agriculture this population requires. It is only 550,000 square kilometers, and while that is a lot of land, we are talking about two continents of, between them, 42 million. 

To put it another way, New England is 16.2 million hectares; Nova Scotia and New Brunswick add another 13 million; New Jersey is 190,000 hectares. Well east of the Great Valley in the very first regions contacted by Europeans, there is more than enough land to "rewild" with beavers and take up the required carbon. The big missing piece, then, is evidence for rising beaver populations along the littoral in the right time frame, preferably as early in the Sixteenth Century as it can be persuaded to go, as carbon sequestration takes time. Norumbega will never die!

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