Native American dispersal legacy re:tree distribution

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Native American dispersal legacy re:tree distribution

Post by Lucas » Wed Mar 16, 2016 7:59 pm

Interesting stuff that hopefully will be studied further. One wonders how chestnuts etc tie in. ... 151528.htm ... ne.0150707

Robert J. Warren, assistant professor of biology at SUNY Buffalo State, shows that the distribution of Gleditsia triacanthos (honey locust) throughout the southern Appalachian Mountain region in the United States can be best explained by ancient cultivation practices of the Cherokee.

"Native Americans may have affected the concentration of plant species long before Europeans came to North America," said Warren. "The purpose of this research was to test the hypothesis that a centuries-old legacy of Cherokee cultivation explains current regional G. triacanthos distribution patterns." Warren describes his findings in Ghosts of Cultivation Past: Native American dispersal legacy persists in tree distribution, published in PLOS ONE on March 16, 2016.

Warren began his surveys and field experiments, including seedling introductions, in 2009. "I always have an underlying interest in the patterning of plant species," he said. "While I was doing field work in Southern Appalachia, I noticed that whenever I saw a honey locust, I could throw a rock and hit a Cherokee archeological site. I knew that, in the late Pleistocene era, the main source of dispersal for honey locusts was megafauna such as mastodons. But mastodons disappeared more than 10,000 years ago. You'd expect plant species that relied strictly on extinct megafauna for seed dispersal would only exist in small, remnant populations."

Several theories regarding the persistence of G. triacanthos include dispersal by smaller animals such as white-tailed deer; livestock introduced by European settlers; and water transport. However, Warren--whose research focuses on biotic dispersal of plant seeds leading to plant distribution--decided to investigate further.

"When we look at distribution of plant species," he said, "ecologists are accustomed to assume that plants thrive in habitats with abiotic characteristics--water, sunlight, soil type--that meet the plants' needs. Questioning that assumption leads to interesting discoveries." Warren explores mutualism between biotic (living) organisms such as insects and the plants that depend on them. In Ghosts of cultivation past, he notes that "…some plant distributions better reflect the niche requirements of the mutualist than the plant itself."

He points out that the Cherokee had reason to cultivate the honey locust as a source of sugar, and as wood for game sticks and weapons. The tree also had spiritual significance. He conducted extensive searches for honey locust trees and then used sources including military maps, historical accounts, archeological research, and historical markers to identify Cherokee settlement sites. He verified the information with sources including the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation (EBCI) Tribal Historic Preservation Office. His results strongly suggest that G. triacanthos distribution in the Southern Appalachian region are more strongly patterned by Native American settlements than by niche requirements or alternative methods of seed dispersal.

Warren said that the same may be true for other trees, including paw paws and the Kentucky coffeetree, and probably many others. "Native Americans of North America were shaping their environment long before the colonial period," said Warren. "Instead of pyramids and temples, they left their mark in the ecosystem they helped to create."
We travel the Milky way together, trees and men. - John Muir

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Re: Native American dispersal legacy re:tree distribution

Post by wisconsitom » Thu Mar 17, 2016 8:44 am

Interesting. Similarly, American lotus-Nelumbo lutea-is supposed to have been relocated within Wisconsin-from its original Mississippi River domain much further "inland" in prehistoric days.

Even though much of my work revolves around "native restoration", I am often bothered by the holier-than-thou attitudes expressed by many practitioners and enthusiasts of the field. This report ties in with my belief that what was-the landscape prior to European settlement-had been changed and altered in numerous ways by man prior to all this. Since prairies are literally shoved down my throat, it is a frequent comment of mine that those prairies that did exist in say, southern Wisconsin, were 100% man-made. All of those areas, left to their own devices....that is, with no people around to burn the landscape, would have been just as heavily wooded as those areas further north and east.

Of course, the heroes of the prairie movement will have none of this. They do not wish to have their comfy boat rocked!

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Re: Native American dispersal legacy re:tree distribution

Post by Erik Danielsen » Thu Mar 17, 2016 9:18 am

I had the chance to hear Warren present these findings at a Niagara Frontier Botanical Society meeting last year while the paper was in review. Really enjoyable to hear the narrative of how the hypothesis and subsequent study came to be, and the work that went into cultivating relationships with Cherokee communities on whose land a lot of the study took place.

It's important to consider humans as a natural component of North America's pre-columbian landscape, including in regard to prarie/meadow/savannah habitats. If pre-industrial human activities maintained those habitats for thousands of years, how is that less "natural" than maintenance by extinct megafauna? Along with the activities of remaining large ruminants like previously much wider-ranging bison (not just burning, which is often oversold as a component of savannah ecotypes), open and open-woodland habitats would have remained a component of the shifting patchwork of ecotypes in North America and are as important to conserve as forest ecotypes. If anything, there's even less acreage of intact prarie than there is intact primary forest. It's a similar missing piece of conversations around control of exploding deer populations- the concept of reintroducing predators is always a sticking point, but often leaves out the reality that in the period since most of north america's large mammal diversity disappeared and whitetail deer became more abundant, humans were probably the most important predator regulating their population, moreso than wolves or mountain lions.

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Re: Native American dispersal legacy re:tree distribution

Post by wisconsitom » Thu Mar 17, 2016 10:35 am

Yeah I know all that Erik. Didn't feel like writing the whole book here this morning! You'd have to stand in my shoes to know what I've been up against. There is so much baloney in the prairie enthusiasts network...and don't you doubt if for one minute, they do hate our trees! But I'm not going to get into this right here and now. Trust me, I've been forward, backwards, and sideways with all of this!

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Re: Native American dispersal legacy re:tree distribution

Post by ElijahW » Fri Mar 18, 2016 7:17 pm


This topic makes me appreciate the written history kept by the Europeans regarding their trees. The irony, of course, is that Europe cut most of their forest, while Native Americans did not. A pre-Columbian survey of North American forests would be some of the most interesting reading I can think of.

The small population of Kentucky coffeetree on Howlands Island is thought to have Native American origins, and for individual tribes or family groups to cultivate and transport useful species makes a lot of sense. Thanks for sharing,

"There is nothing in the world to equal the forest as nature made it. The finest formal forest, the most magnificent artificially grown woods, cannot compare with the grandeur of primeval woodland." Bob Marshall, Recreational Limitations to Silviculture in the Adirondacks

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Re: Native American dispersal legacy re:tree distribution

Post by jclarke » Sat Mar 19, 2016 9:00 am

It's likely not just trees, but clams and other food organisms First nations were tending.

See link about clam gardens ... urity.html

I suspect we just weren't looking, so we didn't see. Butternuts may have been spread by people, and perhaps chestnut, but I have no links to back that up. I did hear an older guy tell me that in old times, folks buried chestnuts in a wet place for winter storage, and often kept some to plant. He would have been talking about his grandfather's time, so since the speaker was 92 at the time, his grandfather's time would have been mid 1800's. The grandfather spoke of it as a common thing that folks had done for centuries. At least, this is how the old guy I spoke to remembered it, so likely so. There is another fellow in his 70's I can still talk to, so I'll see if he wants to chat about trees and get back to the discussion if he does.

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