Book Review: “Forgotten Fires”

I continuously search for books on how hunter-gatherers altered the environment. M. Kat Anderson’s “Tending the Wild” recently led me to discover “Forgotten Fires: Native Americans and the Transient Wilderness”. The book, written by Omer Stewart in the 1950’s only recently was published. Explained in the introductions by M. Kat Anderson and Henry T. Lewis, Stewart’s book was basically ignored and almost intentionally buried due to his participation in Native American Land claims cases in which he defended the Natives claims against the U.S. government and won. Basically, his works revealing the largest gaps in anthropology (that duh, hunter-gatherers have intelligent interactions with the land on a large scale) were shunned and ignored out of cultural prejudice and entitlement mentality from agrarian fundamentalists. Thankfully, 50 years later, his book is finally published.

Admittedly, I haven’t really read through the whole thing as it more or less seems like a collection of evidence for indian burning practices, and not a practical guide for using fire as a restoration and regenerative technique. I still think that M. Kat Anderson’s “Tending the Wild” is the best book for that, but this book is a great addition to the collection as you can easily use it as a reference.

Here are some great snippets from the intros:

“If ecologists and environmentalists were to endorse the premise that Indians shaped the ecology of certain plant communities with fire, they would have to rethink the tenets upon which their wilderness philosophies are based and would have to face up to the removal of Native Americans from wilderness areas as in at least some instances a grave ecological faux pas that would ultimately undermine the unique habitat types and the biological diversity that they sought to preserve. They would also have to reevaluate the assumption that land use and conservation are always incompatible or that human tinkering with nature is inevitably destructive.” – M. Kat Anderson

“In terms of some of the most basic ideas about cultural evolution, hunter-gatherer uses of fire almost have to be ignored, since to acknowledge their importance in influencing the distribution and increasing the abundance of natural resources amounts to a kind of theoretical heresy. The assumption that hunter-gatherers are ecologically inept, or at least environmentally benign, has been central to the perception that the origins of agriculture constituted a “revolutionary change” in how humans related to the environment. Leslie White (1943:371), most prominent among others in this respect, emphasized that it was only with the onset of farming that humans established “control over the forces of nature,” assuming that prior to the beginnings of agriculture people could not have influenced the local availability, distribution, and abundance of either plants or animals.” – Henry T. Lewis

8 Comments on “Book Review: “Forgotten Fires””

  1. Really fascinating. That h/gatherers were “environmentally benign” is a common assumption but when you think about doesn’t make a lot of sense. I watched a you tube video about the practice of burning in Australia by the aborigines. I wish I could remember the link. But essentially the health of the forest depended on it and once the natives were removed from the land the whole forest suffered. It really shows how our thinking of “man vs nature” is so fucked up.

  2. Thank you Scout for reviewing Forgotten Fires.

    Sounds like a beautiful book worthy of being pursued and to be shared with others.

  3. Why is it necessary to assume anything good about the relative impact of HGs other than they got by, probably as gathers first before they became hunters and before dispersal saw modern humans occupy many land continents, extinguishing the megafauna as they went. Did the forests of American continent really have to wait for the appearance of the Clovis people 13,000 years ago before they were “healthy”? Healthy for whom? If we say that every species has their impact on the trajectory of the landscape, can we say that before modern humans came over the Bering Stait that all species consciously “tended” their environment? Did buffalo set fires so that fresh grass growth was available to them? And thats where the difference comes between modern man (and a few hominids prior to homo sapiens) and all other species. We more than any other species, instead of accepting what the land had to offer, started to “tend” it to maximise its returns to one species – us! Thus there was a wilderness before first nations, a wilderness that will never again be complete because of human actions. The little we can do now is honour that human free wilderness the best we can, while recognising that there are contemporary ways that humans could live in modified wilderness if they massively tempered their domination of it.

  4. Hey Mark,

    You said:
    “Why is it necessary to assume anything good about the relative impact of HGs other than they got by, probably as gathers first before they became hunters and before dispersal saw modern humans occupy many land continents, extinguishing the megafauna as they went.”

    Firstly, this depends on your definition of “good”. If you think not destroying the landbase is “good” than we are on the same page. Secondly, it is not an “assumption” that hunter-gatherers tended the land in a way that created more biodiversity, it is based on notable observations and recreations. Thirdly, the megafauna extinction was not the cause of hunter-gatherers, that theory has been debunked for a while now due to scientists further understanding of climate change impacts and how hunter-gatherers manipulate the environment. Fourthly, every animal tends its food supply in a way that keeps its food alive. If this were not the case, every animal would exhaust its food supply very quickly. There are ways of killing that promote growth.

    You said:
    “The little we can do now is honour that human free wilderness the best we can, while recognising that there are contemporary ways that humans could live in modified wilderness if they massively tempered their domination of it.”

    This ignores the mounting data on how hunter-gatherer land management increase biodiversity (not necessarily biomass, but biodiversity). Wilderness is a myth. Even foragers greatly manipulate the land. They tend the wild. Squirrels plant oak forests. Beavers create wetlands and tend willows. Every animal changes their environment. Humans do this too. In the past we could assume that since people lived as hunter-gatherers for 3 million years or so, that they did so in a way that didn’t fuck up their environment (cause hey, here we are today right?). Now we don’t have to assume that, we actually have evidence that proves it.

  5. Well, Scout, you seem certain in your value judgements and so it thus becomes a question of who you believe, and by what measures you satisfy yourself. You would perhaps be less sure of yourself if you saw what perverted use is made of the construct that humans increase biodiversity, and you may consider that in reality it is just a redistribution of species – a counting of numbers. I wonder at what point you, yourself, will judge that your activities have become inimical to the rest of the land community?

  6. You’re a species hater. I get it. I’m not. I recognize that all animals tend the wild, including humans. Modern agriculturalists are to blame for environmental destruction, not the human species. Every animal increases their own food supply. Every animal has multiple sources of food that cross over with other animals. In this way, everything gets tended. Buffalo didn’t burn the grass: they ate it. Same thing, except it didn’t maintain enough of their habitat. One of the reasons the megafauna died off was because they had a loss of prairie habitat from encroaching forests. One of the reasons natives burned was to keep the megafauna from going extinct since they relied on them for food. You’ve obviously never done much reading on hunter-gatherer ecology or fire science or blah blah blah. You think humans are bad, every other animal good. Unfortunately that’s a mythological construct. It’s a lot easier to believe there is nothing we can do about the problem than realize there is a lot we can do.

  7. Coming back after a week away and I see that you are still firmly entrenched in your world view, a view which brooks no alternatives and which has to put words in the mouths of others to shore up its own certainty.

    Never accuse someone of a failing when arguing from a position of ignorance, Scout. It just makes you look churlish. My position on the staff of a University gives me access to the world’s literature, and it just does not tally with all aspects of your world view.

    Just take one article from that world literature, which charts Pleistocene climate change as a way of differentiating human impacts from other drivers of ecological change. 90% of Australia’s large mammals were extinct by around 45 ka. An analysis of faunal data from the Naracoorte Caves in southeastern Australia shows that, despite significant population fluctuations driven by glacial-interglacial cycling, the species composition of the mammal fauna was essentially stable for 500 k.y. before the late Pleistocene extinctions. Larger species declined during a drier interval between 270 and 220 ka, likely reflecting range contractions away from Naracoorte, but they then recovered locally, persisting well into the late Pleistocene. Because the speleothem record and prior faunal response imply that local conditions should have been favorable for megafauna until at least 30 ka, climate change is unlikely to have been the principal cause of the extinctions.

    (Mammalian responses to Pleistocene climate change in southeastern Australia, Gavin J. Prideaux, Richard G. Roberts, Dirk Megirian, Kira E. Westaway, John C. Hellstrom and Jon M. Olley, Geology 2007;35;33-36)

    Megafaunal carnage throughout the world’s history correlates with the arrival of modern man, from the 40-50,000 years ago in Australia, the 13,000 years ago in the Americas, to the more recent oceanic explorations that saw the arrival 2000 years ago in Madagascar and 1000 years ago in New Zealand. In the Americas, as in New Zealand and Australia, the extinction of species was only compounded by the arrival of Euro-settlers and their agriculture.

    Open some space in your mind, Scout. You can’t just pick and choose what suits your thesis – as is the case with your conibear traps.

  8. Apologies for appearing to hog this debate, but overnight a very recent research paper came to light that yet again ties megafaunal extinction in N. America to the appearance of modern humans. The advantage of this paper is that it is freely available for all to read, unlike most academic journals. Thus:

    “We compute those baselines for mammals of temperate North America, using a sampling-standardized rich fossil record to reconstruct species-area relationships for a series of time slices ranging from 30 million to 500 years ago. We show that shortly after humans first arrived in North America, mammalian diversity dropped to become at least 15%–42% too low compared to the “normal” diversity baseline that had existed for millions of years. While the Holocene reduction in North American mammal diversity has long been recognized qualitatively, our results provide a quantitative measure that clarifies how significant the diversity reduction actually was.”

    “Our results provide a quantitative assessment of what has long been primarily a qualitative observation: namely, the decline in mammal diversity that occurred as human presence first began to dominate the North American landscape. We demonstrate that this decline represented a 15–42% loss (depending on biogeographic province) in mammal species richness. Therefore, the diversity baseline we are at today already is well below the “normal” biodiversity baseline for North American mammals, if we define “normal” as the condition that prevailed through most of the millions of years modern mammal families have been on Earth.”

    Carrasco MA, Barnosky AD, Graham RW (2009) Quantifying the Extent of North American Mammal Extinction Relative to the Pre-Anthropogenic Baseline. PLoS ONE 4(12): e8331