This award is funded under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (Public Law 111-5).

With support from the National Science Foundation, an inter-disciplinary team of scholars is examining the degree to which California Indians employed landscape management practices, particularly prescribed burning, to increase the productivity and diversity of economic plants and animals in local regions. There is considerable debate among Native scholars, ecologists, ethnographers, and archaeologists about the extent to which California hunter-gatherer groups managed local environments in the Late Holocene and Historic periods. While some argue for the strategic use of fire and landscape modifications on the scale of agrarian societies found elsewhere in indigenous North America, others believe the magnitude and complexity of management practices have been greatly over-exaggerated in the recent literature. This controversy is much more than an academic exercise. California is currently experiencing a devastating fire situation (more than 4000 wildfires in 2008), with grave implications for property loss, land use issues, and the state's budget. A question that is increasingly raised in the on-going debate is whether some elements of indigenous landscape practices might be applied to the management of wildlands in California to increase the biodiversity of native species and to decrease fuel loads and the frequency of devastating firestorms.

The purposes of this study are twofold. The first is to develop an integrated eco-archaeological approach for the study of California Indian landscape management practices through time, with particular focus on prescribed burning. This approach will employ various types of ecological and archaeological data from both on-site and off-site contexts. A rigorous methodology will be implemented to collect microbotanical remains (pollen, charcoal, starch grains, phytoliths), macrobotanical samples, faunal materials, artifacts, and wedge samples from redwood stumps that can be used to construct fire histories and vegetation successions, and to evaluate cultural practices among local hunter-gatherer communities that might be associated with fire management. The approach also includes the integrated use of historic landscape data (photographs, maps, sequential aerial imagery), ethnohistorical sources, and extant Native oral histories and oral traditions. The second goal is to apply this approach in the Quiroste Valley, a newly designated "State Cultural Preserve" in the Año Nuevo State Reserve in Central California. The work will be undertaken by a collaborative research team comprised of Native scholars, archaeologists, range management researchers, and fire ecologists from the California Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR), the Amah Mutsun Ohlone Tribe, UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz, and the San Francisco Estuary Institute (SFEI). The research team will evaluate a pyrodiversity collector model which hypothesizes that hunter-gatherers enhanced and created biodiversity by instigating fire regimes characterized by frequent, small, low severity surface burns. In evaluating this model, team members will address research questions concerning the nature, extent, and implications of fire management practices in the Quiroste Valley during Late Holocene and Historic times, and whether specific kinds of practices may have curtailed the frequency and severity of major firestorms.

The intellectual merits of this study are to make better use of archaeological data in evaluating questions concerning past fire regimes and to determine the degree to which hunter-gatherer communities created anthropogenic environments. The broader impacts of the study involve the important contributions that archaeologists and ecologists can make to the study and management of contemporary wildlands and open spaces in the wildland-urban interface. In working at Año Nuevo State Reserve, project researchers are ideally situated to not only investigate past Native fire practices, but to collaborate with DPR resource specialists and Amah Mutsun tribal members in developing alternative methods and perspectives for managing contemporary landscapes using lessons derived from the eco-archaeological research.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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John E. Yellen
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University of California Berkeley
United States
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