Scientists study "carbon footprint" of early American Indians

A study led by Ohio University scientists suggests that early American Indians left a bigger carbon footprint than previously thought.

Analysis of a stalagmite found in the Buckeye Creek basin of West Virginia suggests that native people contributed a significant level of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere through their land use practices. The early Native Americans burned trees to actively manage the forests to yield the nuts and fruit that were a large part of their diets.

“They had achieved a pretty sophisticated level of living that I don’t think people have fully appreciated,” said Gregory Springer, an associate professor of geological sciences. “They were very advanced, and they knew how to get the most out of the forests and landscapes they lived in. This was all across North America, not just a few locations.”

The evidence that Native Americans significantly altered their local ecosystem conflicts with the popular notion that early American Indians had little impact on North American landscapes. They were better land stewards than the European colonialists who followed, Springer said, but they apparently cleared more land and burned more forest than previously thought.

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