Trees - the new world

When the europeans landed in the new world, what was the tree density like? I would figure that trees, underbrush, and overgrowth would be unbelievable, assuming it was left unchecked.

The Native Americans didn’t have any large capacity for stripping the land as far as I know, so if nature was permitted to take its course, I’d figure that trees/bushes/flowers/whatever would be everywhere. Over the millions of years the planet was circling the sun, I would think that if the land could support trees, there would be trees. The trees would reproduce over and over, and trees would spread into a forest. That forest should have covered a large portion of North America.

But, that doesn’t seem to be the case from what I remember reading. Perhaps the coasts were full of large forests, but once inland, were the great plains of the midwest full of old growth forests? Or is this area just not conducive to tree/forest growth? From what I recall from reading, the great plains were fairly wide open, grasses and such, but no major forests.

I know the climate wouldn’t support a rain forest, but what about your average pine tree, or oak tree, etc? They can grow just about anywhere. Granted, perhaps the desert southwest would be tough, but what about places like Kansas, Nebraska or Iowa? Did the land have to be cleared of more than just rocks before serious farming began? I’m not talking about your stray tree or two. I’m asking about a forest like what we see in the pacific northwest.

The Indians had Fire and Agriculture, so sure, they could and did strip the land.

However, without Mankinds intervantion, a land area gets to what is called (or at least what used to be called, opinions now differ) a 'climax community". For example, if Oak trees are what will take over, given enough time, it’s called “an Oak climax forest”. In some areas it is Oak trees, others Ponderosa pines, others redwoods.

But sometimes, grasslands/praries are what we end up with:
Grasslands occur in temperate and tropical areas with reduced rainfall (10-30 inches per year) or prolonged dry seasons. Grasslands occur in the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Australia. Soils in this region are deep and rich and are excellent for agriculture. Grasslands are almost entirely devoid of trees, and can support large herds of grazing animals. Natural grasslands once covered over 40 percent of the earth’s land surface. In temperate areas where rainfall is between 10 and 30 inches a year, grassland is the climax community because it is too wet for desert and too dry for forests.

In pre 1492 America, the vast majority of people were farmers. This wasn’t a virgin continent, but a densely populated continent. Nature was NEVER permitted to take it’s course.

Thanks for the great links!

I’ll buy your statement about the Native American’s having fire and agriculture, but they didn’t strip the land like we think of today, did they? I don’t remember reading about any Native American “towns”. Their life was in many ways nomadic, and they didn’t build many permanent structures, like a two-story house. Or hotels… or saloons. I always had the impression that they lived off the land and used what they needed. So, fire was a need, for cooking and heat. But were they clearing that much land in the scheme of things?

I agree that it wasn’t a virgin continent… but was it really *densely * populated? And if it was, how about the continent before the first people made it to North America?

Perhaps my question doesn’t go back far enough. If people came to North America over the “land bridge” from Asia, perhaps that’s where I should have started.

Was the continent covered with trees then? Surely, the trees had a huge head start.

I’ve heard that in some areas the Indians did do enough burning to create a sort of local smog. I doubt if they deforested the land anywhere near as much as the colonists did, though. According to the guides, the area around Concord and Lexington in colonial days hade far fewer trees than they do today, because much of the land was cleared for farming, and much of the remaining timber used as fuel.

No, most Indians weren’t nomadic. Farmers can’t be nomads. And they built plenty of permanent structures. Out of wood, mostly. Remember hearing about the “longhouses” of the eastern indians that the pilgrims encountered? Those were huge permanent structures for multigenerational families. Tenochtitlan was perhaps the largest city in the world when Cortez showed up to kick over the apple cart. Think about all those stone pyramids in Mesoamerica.

But if you knock over wooden house, within a few years you’ve got nothing left, the whole thing rots away into nothingness. Archeologists can often find filled in post holes, but nothing left of the wooden parts of the building itself. So yeah, the whole east coast was packed with farming villages, the whole mississippi valley was packed with farming villages, the pacific northwest was packed with fishing villages. And they cleared the land to grow corn, beans, squash, peppers, amaranth, all kinds of crops, almost half of our modern food crops came from American crops.

Now, back to the other question. DrDeth explained the concept of climax vegetation. And in many places around the world the climax vegetation is not trees, but grass. Water availability, fire, and herbivores can prevent tree growth. Savannas, steppes, tundra, ice sheets and deserts don’t have trees as typical climax vegetation. So an area with infrequent rainfall has wildfires every few years, killing saplings. Herbivores eat baby trees. And in those areas grass outcompetes trees, trees can’t get a foothold. If you supress fires and exclude herbivores then sometimes trees start to take over, but it depends on the exact ecology. So usually you have rainforests that grade into savannas that grade into deserts that grade into grasslands that grade into that grade into decidious forests that grade into taiga that grades into tundra that grades into bare rock and ice. Assuming you have enough unbroken land to do so, and disregarding local deviations due to mountain ranges and oceans that can give you temperate rainforests, mediterranean climates, rainshadow deserts, alpine tundra, etc.

Please fight my ignorance. I have been told (by a teacher I think) that the buffalo-follwing type tribes, like the Souix, would actually light the prarie on fire to chase the herd over cliffs and the like. Fact or fiction?
"*Indians were the first farmers in North America, and agriculture has been a mainstay of the American Indian culture and economy for thousands of years. In fact, the Indians of Central America and Mexico, or Mesoamerica, were engaged in agriculture 7,000 years before Europeans settled in the present-day United States.

Archaeological evidence indicates American Indians began farming in what later became the continental United States by 5000 B.C. utilizing indigenous agricultural practices as well as practices learned from Mexican and Central American cultures. By A.D. 1000, American Indian farmers had developed a productive and complex agricultural system based on corn, beans, and squash, which have been commonly referred to as the “three sisters.”
…There has been variety in American Indian agriculture and economy. Before contact with the European civilization, American Indians in the northern United States cultivated the river valleys and flood plains with bone and wooden hoes and digging sticks. American Indian women raised the traditional crops of beans, squash, and many varieties of corn–the most important crop. In the upper Great Lakes, the Ojibwa (Chippewa) and the Assiniboin sowed, harvested, dried, threshed, and stored wild rice… . Over time, American Indian farmers in the southern United States cultivated squash and bottle gourds, and then traded agricultural products in market centers. Southern farmers raised a significant amount of their own food as well as a surplus for lean times, and for trade with each other and later with the European settlers.

American Indians used highly developed agricultural methods and practices. The Southwest Indian farmers developed a new type of corn, which provided the subsistence basis for southwestern Indian civilization; cultivated several varieties of squash and beans; grew cotton; developed water-conservation practices; and used several methods of irrigation. From A.D. 800 to 1400 the Hohokam Indians in the Southwest, called the “canal builders,” constructed major systems of irrigation canals that were 150 miles long or more. Although the Plains Indians relied mainly on hunting and gathering, by A.D. 1000 the Indians of the central Plains practiced well- developed agriculture with corn, beans, squash, sunflowers, and tobacco being the important crops. "*
*The Creek people lived in large permanent towns or italwa with smaller outlying villages or talofa that were associated with the larger town. Italwa were centered around plazas(pascova) used for dancing, religious ceremonies and games. …Plazas in the towns also contained a rotunda – a round building made of poles and mud used for council meetings – and an open-air summer council house. The people in the villages attended ceremonies in the towns with which they were associated. Surrounding the plaza area were the family homes. Towns were governed by a Chief, or “Mico”, an assistant chief, and a “Mico Apokta”, who acted as speaker for the Chief, announcing his decisions to the people.

These characteristics are very similar to what is known about the prehistoric Mississippian Culture who occupied the Etowah Mounds village. The people of the Etowah Mounds are believed to be the ancestors of the Creeks who controlled the area until the early 1500’s.
When a Creek town reached a population of about 400-600 people they would split, with about half moving to a new, nearby site. The new town would build its ceremonial center and develop its own villages, but would also retain a “mother-daughter” relationship with its original town. This is how the confederacies were formed. Creek legends tell of palisaded, compact towns. By the 1700’s Creek towns began to spread out, reflecting a move to an agrarian lifestyle. At the end of this century it was not uncommon for each town to have outlying homes separated by a mile or more of crops. The Creek adopted the plow and ax and raised livestock"*
*Generally, the American Indians burned parts of the ecosystems in which they
lived to promote a diversity of habitats, especially increasing the “edge
effect,” which gave the Indians greater security and stability to their lives.
Their use of fire was different from white settlers who burned to create greater
uniformity in ecosystems. In general, during the pre-settlement period, Indian
caused fires are often interpreted as either purposeful or accidental (campfires
left or escaped smoke signalling).

Most primary or secondary accounts relate to the purposeful burning to establish
or keep “mosaics, resource diversity, environmental stability, predictability,
and the maintenance of ecotones (Lewis 1985: 77).” These purposeful fires by
almost every American Indian tribe differ from natural fires by the seasonality
of burning, frequency of burning certain areas, and the intensity of the fire
(Lewis 1985). Indian tribes tended to burn during different times of the year,
sometimes in the early spring or summer, while at other times in the fall after
the hunt and berry picking season was over. Hardly ever did they purposely burn
during mid-summer and early fall when the forests were most vulnerable to
catastrophic wildfire. Often the Indians burned selected areas yearly, every
other year, or intervals as long as five years. Steve Pyne put much of the
Indian use of fire into perspective as he reported that:

     the  modification  of  the  American continent by fire at the
     hands of Asian immigrants was the result  of  repeated,  con-
     trolled, surface burns on a cycle of one to three years, bro-
     ken  by  occasional holocausts from escape fires and periodic
     conflagrations during times of  drought.   .....

What follows is list of documented reasons for one change to ecosystems - that
of intentional burning. This activity has greatly modified landscapes across
the continent in many subtle ways…
Hunting - Burning of large areas to divert big game (deer, elk, bison) into
small unburned areas for easier hunting and provide open prairies/meadows
(rather than brush and tall trees) where animals (including ducks and
geese) like to dine on fresh, new grass sprouts. Fire was also used to
drive game into impoundments, narrow chutes, into rivers or lakes, or over
cliffs where the animals could be killed. …
Crop management - Burning used to harvest crops, especially tarweed, yucca,
greens, and grass seed collection. In addition, fire was used to prevent
abandoned fields from growing over and to clear areas for planting corn and
tobacco. …
Improve growth and yields - Fire used to improve grass for big game grazing
(deer, elk, antelope, bison, and later horses), camas reproduction, seed
plants, berry plants (especially raspberries, strawberries, and huckleber-
ries), and tobacco."
*Pueblo Indians(Spanish pueblo, ìvillageî), American Indians living in compact, apartmentlike villages of stone or adobe in northwestern New Mexico and northeastern Arizona. …The transition from the Basket Maker to the Pueblo culture occurred about 700. Stone construction was adopted, and the connected, now-aboveground houses became larger. The ceremonial chamber developed into the kiva, an underground chamber used for rituals and as a male lodge. Several kinds of corn were grown, and the cultivation of cotton may have been introduced. Pottery was produced in a diversity of shapes and styles. During this period the Anasazi made their greatest territorial expansion, reaching as far as central Utah, southern Colorado, and a large part of northern Mexico.

During the Classic Pueblo period (1050-1300) the northernmost regions were no longer occupied, and the population became concentrated in large multistoried, terraced pueblos and in similar villages built in recesses in cliffs"*

By Nomadic you’re just referring to the Plains indians. In many ways these are what us “round eyes” :smiley: think of as Indians. However, they were just the indians we mainly encountered during the “cowboy and indian” phase.

Many Indian people lived in small towns.

Before there were People here, there was mostly Ice. Humans appeared as the ice ages went away. But even without humans, some areas are deserts or grasslands, as they just don’t have enough water for trees.

How do you define “densely populated”? Pre-Columbian population estimates for all of the Americas, North, Central, and South America, range from a low of 8.4 million to a high of 112.5 million persons. The current population of that area is over 800 million.

Yes and no… The climax growth in Yellowstone would be hardwood, but there’s very little hardwood in the park, because fires are so common, and the lodgepole pines can recover from large forest fires much quicker than hardwoods. In fact, the lodgepole’s reproductive strategy is optimised specifically for recovering from forest fires: The cones won’t even open unless exposed to temperatures of (IIRC) 160 F.

For the Great Plains, I think the main issue is water: There just isn’t enough rainfall to support most trees. So mostly what you get is a few cottonwoods and other low-water species, and even those mostly tend to grow alongside streams.

Perhaps this is indeed my problem. Of course I knew about their agriculture, but I never really thought about them living in permanent structures. I assumed (obviously incorrectly) that they would pick up their camp and go on the hunt for game, return to where they planted their crops and lived in a semi-nomadic cycle.

I also knew about the Inca and Mayan populations (with pyramids and other structures). I guess my thought is bent toward plains indians of what is now mostly the United States, made famous in westerns like “Dances with Wolves”. (Curse you Kevin Costner!) :smack:

Thanks all for the great info., not only on the Indians but of the concept of climax vegetation. Good stuff.

The concept of a climax community isn’t one that botanists and ecologists really have much time for these days. It relies on an obviously fictitious assumption that there will never be any fires, droughts floods, hurricanes, diseases or abnormally wet years for at least one entire tree lifespan. IOW you will only ever get a climax community if the environment is perfectly stable for over 100 years. Needless to say nobody has ever seen an actual climax community. In the real world all communities are in a state of flux.

These have all been excellent responses but one major point that nobody has pointed out yet is that most of North America hasn’t supported trees for millennia. Trees only moved into most of North America very recently. In fact it is somewhat ironic for your question that most of North Am has supported humans for longer than it has supported forests. Remember that until just 10, 000 years ago the ice sheets covered North Am as far south as NY state and the climate was so cold that the land was tundra as far south as Louisiana.

As a result humans are a more ‘natural’ part of the North Am landscape than the forests themselves. Whatever tree cover exists on the continent is entirely defined by humans and came into existence with them.

As for Indian effect on trees, as others have pointed out it was massive. Large areas of the Great Plains for example would have naturally been timbered if not for human intervention while the tree density of the rest of the continent was maintained in an artificially low condition due to the use of fire of agriculture.

You state that your “thought is bent toward plains indians of what is now mostly the United States, made famous in westerns”. But you should be aware that even that situation was artificial. Remember that even the Mississippi valley was dotted walled fortified cities with populations of 10, 000 people or more when Columbus arrived. European diseases and a string of drought years decimated the populations and led to a reversion to a more nomadic existence, but many of the plains Indians had been agriculturalists. Added to that the introduction of horses had enabled people to make a living chasing bison and as a result many of the so called plains Indians were agriculturalists who had recently abandoned their lifestyle to become essentially hunter-gatherers.

The short answer is that when Columbus arrived the Indian impact on North America’s trees was so great that there may well have been fewer trees then than there are today. The extent of timbered land was much greater but the tree densities were far, far lower than today.

Almost certainly fiction.

First, there just aren’t many ‘cliffs’ in the Midwest prairie land.

Second, the prairie was their home. Why would they burn it just to chase buffalo herds? The plains indians on horseback were pretty good at catching a buffalo. And how could they be sure the fire would burn in the right direction to chase the herd over a cliff? Besides, that’s all unnecessary – it’s not hard for a few riders to get a buffalo herd into a stampede, without any need to burn down the prairie.

Third, it would make no economic sense for a tribe to do this. They lived off the buffalo herd; they know better than to exterminate the whole herd. And most tribes were too small to eat a whole herd, and their methods of preserving meat were not very effective. The best preservation method was to leave the buffalo alive, and kill just one or two as needed each week.

Don’t believe everything a teacher tells you.

P.S. But you might try believing your spelling teacher: Sioux, Prairie, etc.

Ulm Pishkun State Park, Montana

More here.
The site does not mention any use of fire to stampede the animals.

Almost certainly it isn’t. Indians such as the Sioux indisputably did drive large herds off buffalo over cliffs to kill them. Fire was reported to be used on occasion but is less well established.

No, but there are sufficient. There are many well documented buffalo jumps in the midwest prairies and many more poorly documented and transient sites. Remember that you only need to drop a buffalo a few feet to break its legs so any sinkhole or breakaway on a creek bank would serve the purpose. You don’t need 100 foot cliffs.

Because it was the simplest way to catch buffalo. Prairie recovers rapidly fom burning and the green shoots then attract even more buffalo to that location. The view that fire is somehow destructive is very much a European prejudice and not one that the Indians of the Great Plains subscribed to.

The plains Indians didn’t even have horses until about 300 years ago.

Fire moves with the wind. Simply light the grass upwind of the target in a broad semi-circle.

Nonetheless many tribes did it on an annual basis. European economic “sense” is also something that Indians didn’t subscribe to.

I’m not sure you appreciate that the whole herd at the time consisted of tens of millions of bison. The concept of any Indian tribe exterminating the entire herd is implausible to say the least.

First off their preservation methods were every bit as effective as ours are today. Pemmican would last for several years if necessary but was usually only required for the winter months.

Secondly the choice cuts and hides were removed and most of the carcasse was simply left to rot.

Once again you are trying to apply a very European viewpoint to people who weren’t European. No serious attempts were made to preserve or even utilise 9/10 of the carcasses. Buffalo were an infinite resource for these people. Why would they care about how much of the dead animals was actually consumed?

The point you need to appreciate here is that bison were nomadic. They weren’t available each week. In any tribe’s territory the bison might only be passing through for 8-10 weeks each year and then they wouldn’t be seen again until the following year.

When bison were available they were available in infinite numbers that couldn’t possibly be overexploited. When they left they weren’t available at all. The Indians rather sensibly exploited them fully for the few brief weeks when they were available.

Much has been said about the effect of Native Americans on the pre-Columbian forests, but let’s be clear… there were Alot of woods around and they were Massive and impressive to the Europeans. Remember that Europe had basically been deforested, or was in the process of becoming so by Columbus’ day. The charcoal burners and need for timber had put intense pressure on European forests. European forests were also less diverse than their new world counterparts, I recall reading that my home state of TN has more indigenous species of trees and shrubs than all of Europe combined. The forests back then looked different too, for example the American Chestnut has been basically wiped out by a blight but in the 15th century those huge old chestnuts would have covered much of the eastern US under their canopies. It must have been a sight to see.

Blake, wonderful response. I just want to add that there is a buffalo jump in town where I live. It’s right behind the mall out on the edge of town. You can even take tours, if you’re in the area.

LokiJ I think you have the wrong impressionof pre-Columbian North America. Before Columbus North America was relatively densely populated with just patches of forest maintained as hunting reserves. Those patches were extensive but by no stretch did “huge old chestnuts” cover “much of the eastern US under their canopies”.

The truth is that the forests that so impressed Europeans were not the primordial forests you and they believed them to be. Rather they were recent forests that sprang up after Columbian diseases decimated the Indian population. The forests of the Eastern US encountered by the English, Dutch and French were almost all less than 200 years old.

Pre-Columbian North America was not some sort of silvan wonderland with vast swathes of forested land. It was a chequerborad of agricultural land interspersed with relatively small patches of intensively forest and grassland that was mainatained as hunting reserve. While the hunting reserves were relatively more extensive than they were in Europe the overall pattern wasn’t significantly different.

Your belief that forests covered most of the eastern US in pre-Columbian times is a myth that can be directly attibuted to a misunderstanding on the part of the first European settlers. Those settlers failed to understand that the Indian population was low and Indian culture and impact reduced because of European disease. It wasn’t the pre-Columbian state.

It has been said more than once that the eastern US in 1500 was not significantly different to Bavaria in 1500 in terms of forest cover. Of the forest patches that did exist as far as we can tell none consisted of unbroken canopies such as we fnd in modern natural forests. Instead the forest was entensively managed to produce the open parkland and regular gaps conducive to favoured game animals

I don’t believe I ever used the word “Primordial”. The Op asked what the landscape of the new world was when Europeans landed. Significant European settlement of North America didn’t occur until the mid 17th century. There had been over a hundred years for disease to shrink the native population, and forests to reclaim the farms. Even at it’s peak Native American population I would be more than willing to bet that the scale of the forests in the Americas dwarfed anything in western Europe, as you said it was relative. The fact you picked Bavaria is interesting, as it was then as now one of the more forested regions of western Europe and relatively early on adopted protective forestry practices.

I’m not going to second-guess what stonewall meant when he referred to "when the Europeans landed. I can only state that when the Europeans landed in 1492 the forest cover wasn’t as you decribed.

Moreover you yourself referred to pre-Columbian forests, not mid-17th century forests. I can assure you that pre-Columbian forests were nothing like you seem to imagine.

It wouldn’t be suprising if the scale of North American forests was smaller than Europe’s forests so I would be quite willing to take your bet. Most of the Indian timbered land was maintained as savanna parkland and forest with extensive gaps to maximise the edges favoured by game. The amount of actual forest appears to have been perishingly small. It is likely that no area of land managed by indians existed as foret at all. In contrast in Europe extensive areas were maintained in a state of forest cover.

There’s no doubt that the extent of timbered land was higher in pre-Columbian America than it is today, a point that I stressed severeal times above.
The whole point being that Indians managed their forested lands every bit as intensively as Europeans and destroyed and altered them just as much. In pre-Columbian times chestnuts most certainly did not ocver much of the eastern US. In pre-Columbian times farms, roads, earthworks, towns and fallows covered most of the eastern US, just as was the case in Europe. What little land was covered in timber had very low tree densities compared to contemporary European forests.