Native American land use legacies in the present day landscape of the eastern United States

Sarah E. Johnson
Forest Ecology, Pennsylvania State University
July, 2014


Native American populations in the eastern United States were active and passive land managers during the period from AD 500 to 1650. The impacts of these land uses were profound, and identifiable in historic records. In this study, vegetation and soil characteristics from archaeological sites and off-site areas were quantified on three United States Department of Defense installations and one protected archaeological site in the eastern U.S. to determine if this legacy of Native American land uses exists on present day landscapes. Vegetative indicator species were identified through ethnobotanical literature review to determine which species were highly important in the diet and life of Native American groups of interest. This research defined two major vegetation indicators, white oak ( Quercus alba L.) at MCB Quantico, Virginia and the oak-pine-blueberry ( Quercus-Pinus-Vaccinium ) association of a sandy glacial outwash moraine at Fort Drum, New York. At both of these installations, forested archaeological sites were shown to be distinctly more open (decreased trees per acre) than off-site plots. Soil charcoal, while showing higher incidence on archaeological sites than on off-site areas, was fairly abundant across all surveyed areas, possibly indicating the influence of widespread Native American burning. This research also suggests that Native Americans may have had an influence on soil characteristics in areas with intensive habitation and inherently low fertility soils. At Fort Drum archaeological sites presently have soils that display darker color and higher over-all fertility. Native American influences were less discernible at study sites that exist along waterways. This may be due to their inherently more fertile soils, which would not require amendments to facilitate agriculture, or increased importance of fresh or brackish water resources, decreasing the need for intensive agriculture. Present-day vegetation and soils associated with Late Woodland and Mississippian archaeological sites show different overall trends, influenced by settlement patterns, available resources, and baseline soil fertility. Application of these methodologies therefore requires careful examination of geographic variables and anthropological context. Predictive modeling techniques currently used by cultural resources managers could be improved through addition of other important landscape variables, such as vegetation and soils. This research provides a more complete understanding of Native American land use legacies on the present day landscape in the vegetation and soils, and highlights important indicator species and soil fertility trends at different locations in the eastern United States.