Using LiDAR to Show How Native American Depopulation Impacted Forests in the United States

In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue, and in his wake opened the door to the exploration and devastation of the Americas. The introduction of the European devastated the Native American population of the United States and shifted the course of this continent entirely.

There have been many studies on the ramifications of Columbus’s ‘discovery’ of the Americas. The focus of some of the studies has been on the diseases that depopulated the indigenous peoples of America. This widespread genocide because of disease and warfare had a serious ecological impact on the climate of the Americas.

New research has indicated that disease didn’t spread among Native Americans until nearly 100 years after first European contact. When the diseases did hit, though, the impact was devastating- populations of Native Americans dropped from 6,500 to less than 900 people in the 18 villages the researchers used as their case study.

Nearly 87% of the native population died between the years of 1620 and 1680. Not only did this have an incredible social impact, but an environmental one as well. As the population dropped off villages and other social spaces were reclaimed by nature. Forests grew where fields had once been cultivated and houses had once been lived in. Forest fires increased because of this regrowth in many parts of the US.

Using laser technologies like LiDAR the researchers mapped the old growth forests around the villages and created pictures of what the land looked like before and after disease decimated the native population. This technology also allowed the researchers to see the growth of the forests as related to the increase in forest fires.

Tree establishment at large villages of the Jemez Province. (Upper) Number of trees and dates of establishment at Kwastiyukwa (LA 482), Tovakwa (LA 484), and Kiatsukwa (LA 132/133). (Lower) locations of sampled trees at Kwastiyukwa (Left), Tovakwa (Center), and Kiatsukwa (Right). From: Liebmann et al, 2016.

Tree establishment at large villages of the Jemez Province. (Upper) Number of trees and dates of establishment at Kwastiyukwa (LA 482), Tovakwa (LA 484), and Kiatsukwa (LA 132/133). (Lower) locations of sampled trees at Kwastiyukwa (Left), Tovakwa (Center), and Kiatsukwa (Right). From: Liebmann et al, 2016.

This research brought to light some previously unknown ecological side effects of the decreasing indigenous population in the Americas. From North America to the Amazon this decrease in people may have ushered in a new era of human development and changed the very composition of the Earth, the environment and the atmosphere.

More:

Liebmann, M. J., Farella, J., Roos, C. I., Stack, A., Martini, S., & Swetnam, T. W. (2016). Native American depopulation, reforestation, and fire regimes in the Southwest United States, 1492–1900 CEProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences113(6), E696-E704.

New World devastation.  By Peter Reuell, Harvard Gazette, January 28, 2106.


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