Trees - the new world

Just to add to Blake’s post, here’s a link to Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, one of the major examples of a buffalo jump in Alberta, designated a World Heritage Site by Unesco back in 1981.

And to respond to this comment:

here’s one passage from the Head-Smashed-In webapage:

I would just mention that the situation described for North American forests prevailed in much of the rest of the Americas as well. Evidence shows that much of the lowlands of Panama was deforested by native agriculture before 1000 AD. When Balboa crossed the Isthmus in 1513, he traveled through cornfields much of the way. A century later, after most of the Indians had died of disease, warfare, or abuse, the area was impenatrable forest - as some of it remains today. When Francisco de Orellana descended the Amazon in 1541, he found its banks crowded with villages. A century later, most of the Amazon basin was dense jungle. And so on.

The only time I uttered the phrase “pre-columbian” is when I said that other posts had already covered that particular bit of history. I went on to describe the forests that I thought most relevent to the op, the type of growth experienced by the vast majority of European visitors to the Americas. Also, while I don’t have any problem at all believing that Native American agriculture and silviculture was extensive… I have to say I have a hard time buying that it was quite as extensive as you seem to be saying. Even if the most generous estimates for Native American populations were true, and they were as vigorous at altering forests for their own needs as you say… there were just too many areas of the continent that were remote, inaccessible or not worth the work. Also, Native Americans were limited in the size of their settlements and agriculture by the tyranny of distance… they had no draft animals, the wheel was unused as transportation and the limit to what you could carry in foodstuffs from farm to settlement was what you could carry on your back. I’d like to see some cites for your statements, detailing why you think forests were so drastically curtailed everywhere, to the extent as to be smaller than European forests. The historical record on the timber shortages of the Rennaissance are well known, as far as Europe goes. I don’t believe in the noble savage crap, the Native Americans surely did alter their environment to suit their needs the same as every other people on earth, but the extent to which you describe is pretty dramatic and I’d like to read the evidence you have for it.

It has often been said that in early colonial times a squirrel could have jumped treetop to treetop from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi river. Yes there were Indians here in significant numbers, and yes, they were practicing agriculture, but not on such a scale as to render the prior statement untrue.

Utterly ridiculous. The Indians had nowhere near the numbers to maintain forests in such condition on a continent-wide scale. What is your source for these wild assertions? Cite, sir.

What the Indians did do, in addition to setting aside areas for agricultural use, is maintain some areas as grazing/hunting land in the manner Blake describes. Parts of Virginia were maintained in this fashion, and were kept in grass by artificial means (burning), making them more appealing to deer, elk and buffalo.

What is presently the eastern US has been largely wooded for thousands of years, including periods of maximum glaciation. Cite.

Here is a vegetation map of North America as of 11,000 years ago. This plainly contradicts your assertion. Most of the eastern US is shown as forested.

I can’t decide whether you have fialed to read your own references or simply failed to comprehend them. That first reference states quite plainly that:

Referring to the actual glacial maximum:

So your own reference says that at the last glacial maximum the SE US was treed but the forest existed only along the Atlantic coast, and there it was very open. The Midwest was steppe, the land east of Illinois was somewhat more heavily timbered but still not forest with significant open areas between the trees. East of the Applachians was shifting dunes and open pine woodland. The Florida peninsula was dune desert or sparse shrubland. The Northwestern US was alpine tundra and polar desert. Most of the southwest was woodland verging on semi-desert.
In short your own reference says that most of the US was NOT forest during periods of maximal glaciation but rather was shrubland, barrens, savanna and open woodland with small patches of forest restricted almost exclusively to the Atlantic coast.

Once again, you appear to be unable to understand your own reference material.

That map shows quote clearly the only forest in the US 100, 00 years ago was in the southeast. The rest of the country is variously taiga, woodland, grassland etc.

Which of my statements do you believe that map contradicts, precisely.

You have certainly made some ridiculous assertions here spoke, particularly given that you have the material available that states quite plainly that it is wrong. I suspect that as with ignorant but enthusiastic amateurs you have failed to comprehend that forest has a specific meaning and that grassland, savanna, taiga, shrubland, tundra and woodlands are not forests. Nonetheless I might have expected that the absence of the word forest from the majority of the map and from the written description of vegetation types might have provided you with a clue as to how ridiculous your interpretation was.

Still, now you know better.


If you had bothered to read the thread you would at this stage understand that this was true of the early colonial period only because the Indians populations had been decimated by Eurasian diseases in the previous 200 years and their culture largely destroyed as a result. That dense forest had sprung up precisely because the Indians had been removed.

While the Indians existed at normal population densities they maintained the landscape in a situation that squirrel couldn’t travel for more than a few hundreds yards without taking to the ground.

Well, no, you also stated that Europe was almost deforested in Columbus’ day and hence Europeans of that time were impressed with US forest cover.

I don’t understand what you mean by this. What forested parts of North America were too inaccessible and remote for people to cultivate? What forested areas weren’t worth the work of managing? And can we have some evidence for such claims?

Riiight. But once again I can’t quite see what point you are trying to make. You do realise that most European peasants also had to carry in foodstuffs from farm to settlement on their backs? Right? Pack animals were known in Europe but few peasants could afford to use them for transport. Crops were largely taken to villages by hand.

You could do worse than starting with W. Denevan 1992 “The Pristine Myth: Landscape of the Americas in 1492.” Ann. Assoc. Am. Geog. 82:3. There is an abundance of information therein and I recommend it if you are really interested in this topic. To quote just a few points
“The forests of New England, the Midwest and Southeast had been disturbed to varying degrees by Indian activity prior to European occupation. Agricultural clearing and burning had converted much of the forest into successional growth and into semi- permanent grassy openings…Much of the mature forest was characterised by an herbaceous open understorey reflecting frequent ground fires. The result was forest of few widely spaced trees, few shrubs and much grass and herbage…. Selective Indian burning thus promoted the mosaic quality of New England ecosystems promoting forests in many different states of ecological succession.

…In North America burning not only maintained open forests and meadows but also encouraged fire tolerant and sun loving species.

…Much of the SE US remained treeless in the 1750s… the Kentucky barrens in contrast had been largely reforested by the early 19th century. The Alabama black belt vegetation was described… in the 1770s as a mixture of forest and grassy plains but by the 19th century there was only 10 percent prairie.

…It is possible to conclude that the virgin forest was not encountered in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries but that it was invented in the late eigteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Paradoxical as it may seem there was undoubtedly much more forest primeval in 1850 than in 1650.”

Also well worth your consideration are:

R. Dodds 2002 “The Death of Smokey the Bear: The Ecodisaster Myth and Forest Management Practices in Prehistoric North America.” World Archaeology 33:3

M. Williams. 2003 “Deforesting the Earth : From Prehistory to Global Crisis” U. of Chicago.

You want to know which of your statements are contradicted by my cites? OK, climb on board the reading comprehension train:

All of the maps from my cite show forested areas in the eastern US long before humans arrived. From the cite:

40,000 C y.a…“Spruce and jack pine forest seems to have covered most of the eastern USA, with mixed cool temperate forest in Tennessee and North Carolina. Southern pine forest with oak and hickory existed south of this, extending around into easternmost Texas.”

28,000-25,000 C y.a…“Delcourt & Delcourt (1981) give a summary map for the eastern USA at 25,000 y.a., showing spruce and jack pine forest extending south to about the latitude of Washington DC, and thinning out into forest-steppe west of the Mississippi River. A mixed cool temperate forest belt seems to have existed across the south Appalachian region. From South Carolina southwards to northern Florida, oak-hickory and southern pine forests are suggested as having survived.”

Trees did not only move into the area “only recently.”

You are plainly wrong.

This vegetation map of North America 11,000 years ago shows that the glaciation of that period did not advance into the present-day US at all, and made it only as far south as the northern shores of the Great Lakes (in Canada).

You are plainly wrong.

This vegetation map of North America 11,000 years ago shows that tundra of that period extended no further south than the northern reaches of present-day Minnesota. Louisiana was warm, temperate forest.

You are plainly wrong.

Are you sure you know how to find the US on a map? The url=“”]vegetation map of North America 11,000 years ago shows cool temperate mixed forst extending all the way up to the southern shore of Lake Erie (present-day Ohio) and along the east coast all the way up to present-day New England. Do you consider Ohio and New England part of the southeastern US?

You are plainly wrong.

North of Ohio, the vegetation map of North America 11,000 years ago shows taiga vegetation extending northward to the Great Lakes region in the central US as northward along the east coast into Canada. You assert that “taiga” does not mean forest. From this site discussing present-day areas of taiga vegetation: “The taiga or boreal forest exists as a nearly continuous belt of coniferous trees across North America and Eurasia.”

You are plainly wrong.

By “if you had bothered to read the thread ,” I assume you mean “if you had bothered to believe Blake’s bare (but blustery) assertions.” I do not believe them. Pomposity does not substitute for facts in these parts.

The Indians in North America simply never reached population numbers sufficient for them to maintain the entire US as parkland, as you maintain. Here’s a cite which actually argues from your perspective. (That is, it argues that pre-Columbian Indians had a greater ecological impact in the Americas than we had previously imagined.) But even this friendly site does not make your wild claims about the US being entirely open woodland and farms.

In fact, even the most generous estimates of pre-Columbian population show only 2 million to 3.8 million persons living in all of present day US and Canada. It is patently ridiculous to argue that 2 million to 3.8 million persons could keep all of the forests in the US and Canada maintained as park-like open woodland. Canada and the US comprise over 7 million square miles.

You are plainly wrong.

Good grief spoke-, please try to read what I actually posted.

Why is it that people think they can argue with professionals on matters of ecological history when they wouldn’t dream of doings o on matter of nuclear physics?

I never said trees only moved into the area recently. I said: :Trees only moved into most of North America very recently." This is a point that your own reference states is correct.

Once again, an overenthusiastic amateur misunderstanding technical information.

You would understand how ridiculous it is to argue this point if you realised that ice sheets have advanced and retreat multiple times. How exactly do you propose that 10, 000 years ago glaciers never made it into North America when it is well documented that the last time a glaciers were in Wisconsin 10,000 years ago? I suggest you pick up a copy of Hughes & Denton’s “Great Ice Sheets” wherein you will find it stated quote clearly, with maps, that the ice sheets did indeed reach New York, Wisconsin and several other US states just 10, 000 years ago.

That vegetation map does not show anything like what you are asserting. It is a broadscale snapshot vegetation map. it is not a finescale periodic geologicial map. Do you understand the difference between those things, and if not would you like me to explain the difference?

I can’t believe you are even arguing this point. The claim that 10, 000 years ago the ice sheet extended into NY and Wisconsin isn’t in any way controversial. I know of no geologist who disputes it. You appear to be disputing it based entirely on a single vegetationmap.

Once again, an overenthusiastic amateur failing to understand the basic points of what is being presented in technical presentations. This time you have failed to understand not only that climate fluctuates, but you can’t interpret an entire state’s vegetation type based on broadscale vegetation.

Do you understand that is an extremely coarse scale vegetation map you are looking at. It doesn’t mean that literally all of Louisiana was warm temperate forest with no grassland, no woodland, no conifer forest etc.

Once again I recommend Hughes & Denton’s “Great Ice Sheets” to you. To quote “until as recently as 10,000 years ago… the tundra ecotone extended through the Ozark, Appalachian and Wichita Ranges as far south as Georgia, Alabama and Northern Loiusiana.”


spoke please, please, please just try to read what I actually wrote, OK? It will save us both a lot of time and make it much easier to dispel your ignorance.

What I wrote was that “Trees only moved into most of North America very recently.” And “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.”

Do you understand that the US is not the only part of North Am? Yes, I erroneously wrote US instead of North AM in my response, my bad. But we were only ever discussing North AM, never the US specifically.

I stand by the contention that your own map shows forest only in the SE of North AM. And thus endorses my original point that trees only moved into most of North America very recently.


At no stage have I ever said that the US was entirely open woodland and farms.

Spoke it becomes increasingly clear that you are basically just looking to argue about something that you don’t; understand and have no real interest in discussing what I have actually written.

If you wish to dispute any actual point that I have made then simply state what point you disagree with and I will gladly provide the references I am using.

If you wish to continue arguing against uncontroversial statements such as the fact that glaciers extended into the US 10, 000 years ago then you will need to provide references to that effect. Actual references, not misreadings of maps. I have provided references stating that 10, 00 years ago glaciers were not restricted to Canada as you have claimed.

If you wish to argue against strawman misrepresentations, such as your claim that I said that the entire US was woodland and farms, then you will need to take it somewhere else. I have neither the time nor the inclination to waste my energy on such

I have provided reputable references for every claim I have made. I will provide any others that you ask for specifically. Beyond that I am happy to stand by my record here in terms of my expertise in ecological history and let others decide who is the professional who knows what they are talking about and who is the overenthusiastic amateur who has misread technical information.

My points are all well supported in the scientific literature. An anonymous stranger on an internet message board saying that those points are palinly worng hardly counts for much.

Hey Blake, remember what I said about pomposity not being a substitute for facts? Well, there’s a good example of what I meant.

Read on, “professor.”

By 10,000 years ago, the ice sheets had retreated to Canada. Here is yet another cite, this one with interactive maps, from the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration. The interactive maps are a little confusing, but I’m sure a smart and highly-educated fellow like yourself can figure it out.


Just to be sure, here are direct links to the map from 15,000 years BP (when the ice did extend down into the present-day US) and the map for 10,000 years BP (by which time the ice had retreated into Canada).

(Maybe you are looking at an outdated source. When was your beloved Hughes and Denton tome first published?)

Here’s what you wrote:

You clearly intended to imply that the US, from New York down to Louisiana, was a frozen tundra which did not support trees. This is just plain wrong. Admit it.

Admit that the eastern US was forested long before humans wandered in. Admit it, or provide evidence to the contrary. (And please remember: bombast does not equal evidence.)

Admit that your statement that “humans are a more ‘natural’ part of the North Am landscape than the forests themselves” is silly and wrong.

Admit that you were wrong to state that tree cover in North America only came into existence with humans. Admit that the tree cover was here long before the humans were.

Really? There were no unbroken canopies in the eastern US?

This is a ridiculous assertion. There were simply not enough people here to maintain the eastern forests as “open parkland.” (The high-end estimate being 3.8 million people, man woman and child, in all of North America.) Hell, Blake, most people have all they can do just to keep their back yards from being overgrown with vegetation.

Have you ever been to the US, Blake? That’s a serious question. Because I really begin to suspect that you don’t fully appreciate the vastness of the place.

(3.8 million people in all of present-day US and Canada, I meant to say.)

[Moderator TIME OUT]

Gentlemen, please try to keep it civil.

samclem GQ moderator

Well, yes… I suppose I did mention Columbus era Europe to set the stage for European standards of forestation, I don’t see how this means I was also talking about pre-Columbian America. As for forested parts of the Americas that were remote and inaccessible, how about the Appalachian mountain chain? The delta marsh and mangroves, the sandy pine barrens of New Jersey? There are alot of places in North America that farming just isn’t suitable for, or that are pretty hard to live in even today… and were doubly so for a people who had no draft animals or steel tools. It’s not like there wasn’t plenty of land around, even at it’s height Native American population was still pretty thin on the ground. Heck, even today population in the Americas is relatively light per square mile compared to Europe. As for your assertion that European peasants had to carry foodstuffs on their backs, well… that’s just wrong. Not only did they have horses, and Oxen AND carts AND sailing vessels they also had long evolved trade networks and associations going back to Roman times. Hell, the grain that fed ancient Rome came from Egypt… you can’t possibly compare that to say… the Mayans who’s empire’s literal extent was about a 3 day walk from the city-states. I’m aware there is well documented and extensive evidence for Native American trade networks stretching from the great lakes to meso-America but the items are all small, valuable luxury goods, not bulk commodities. I’m not disputing that the landscape in North America at the height of native population was similar to the de-populated and overgrown forests of the 18th century, but I’m still more than willing to say the extent, size and amount of trees on the ground at all times in America surpassed Europe for at least the last thousand years. Heck, you want to talk about another European account and impression of North America… the Vikings named the Canadian coast “Markland”… which meant “Tree-Land”, evidence suggests they went there for decades to fell the plentiful timber which was lacking in Greenland and Iceland. I just don’t think the continent was the tamed park you seem to describe.

You know, it’s not necessary to quote an entire previous post in your reply.