It didn’t take long for our hominin ancestors, creatures of the grass, to learn that large game was most often found in grassland habitats. Forests were more challenging to hunt in, and they were mostly home to small game. This fact of life motivated hunters to eagerly follow their stomachs to wonderlands of grass-fed, organic, all-you-can-eat flesh. Therefore, the human diaspora out of Africa tended to pursue routes that majored in grasslands.
As they migrated out, their journey took them to grasslands in the Middle East, and then Europe. Barry Cunliffe noted that a vast steppe grassland began in Hungary and ended in Manchuria, providing an easy to travel grass highway that was 5,600 miles (9,000 km) long. As an added bonus, the steppe was largely carpeted with excellent vegetation that was drought-resistant and frost-tolerant.
Later, around A.D. 1300, Marco Polo described the Silk Roads that spanned across the steppe, connecting the civilizations of Europe and the Far East. This link enabled much cultural knowledge to move back and forth (a mixed blessing). The steppe also enabled the emergence of tribes of pastoralists, with their large roaming herds of livestock. These tribes were sometimes absorbed into powerful empires, like those of the Mongols and Huns.
Once established in Asia, the front line pioneers of the human diaspora were eventually able to wander from Siberia, over the Beringia land bridge, and then explore the incredible grassland Serengetis of the Americas.
Anyway, our early hominin ancestors could not help but notice that when occasional wildfires burned off the dry grassland vegetation, tender shoots would soon emerge from the ashes. Fresh greenery looked heavenly to the hungry grazing critters, and hunters deeply loved grazing critters. Fire was a good tonic for the health of grass. It burned up accumulated dead foliage, allowing more solar energy to feed the grass people. Also, when the snows melted away, the ground warmed up faster when the litter was gone, enabling the growing season to begin earlier.
Several million years ago, a clever hominin learned how to kindle a manmade flame by generating friction. One day, by accident or intention, flames from a campfire somehow ignited nearby grass, and winds pushed the roaring blaze across hill and dale, incinerating brush, trees, dry grass, and unlucky wildlife.
This exciting experience gave birth to a devious idea. They could deliberately start grass fires wherever and whenever they wanted. Burning fried the shoots of woody vegetation, eliminated dead plant debris, and encouraged grass to produce at optimal rates. They could encourage bigger herds of game by expanding and maintaining high quality grassland. They could entice game to graze in locations optimal for hunting them, like places close to a water source, and not far from camp. By cleverly controlling nature, they could eat better, feed more bambinos, and enjoy a higher standard of living. So they did.
We folks in the era of glowing screens have a hard time imagining that the practice of deliberately burning grass was a remarkable history bending innovation. But back in the good old days, it was a very hot idea. The routine eventually spread around the world, and substantially reconfigured many ecosystems. It was a highly influential transition in the human saga, far more significant than smart phones or automobiles, which are ridiculous unsustainable amusements that have no long term future.
Initially, fires were used to expand or improve open grassland. Once woody vegetation was eliminated, additional fires were routinely set every few years to prevent its recovery. Eventually, there were no more seeds of woody plants hiding in the sod, so the burn cycles could then be less frequent.
The practice of attracting large game by maintaining top quality grassland is often called firestick farming. It was an easy low tech way to increase food resources. Alfred Crosby noted that firestick farming had transformed much of six continents a long time before the first field was planted. Let’s look at a few examples.
In Australia, the firestick farming practiced by Aborigines was a time-proven fine art that evolved after many centuries of trial and error, learning and tweaking. Humans arrived between 70,000 and 50,000 years ago, and they must have brought with them the magical art of fire starting. Within several thousand years of their arrival, 85 percent of the megafauna species were extinct, including 1,000 pound (453 kg) kangaroos, 400 pound (181 kg) birds, lizards 25 feet (7.6 m) long, and tortoises the size of Volkswagens. Over time, many dry forests that were not fire-tolerant went up in smoke, and were displaced by fire-promoting eucalypt forests.
Bill Gammage described the Australia that British colonists observed in 1788, when they first washed up on shore. The landscape looked radically different from today. Much of what is now dense forest or scrub used to be manmade grasslands. Early white eyewitnesses frequently commented that large regions looked like parks. In those days, all English parks were the private estates of the super-rich. Oddly, the Aborigines who inhabited the beautiful park-like Australian countryside were penniless bare-naked Stone Age anarchist heathens. Their wealth was their time-proven knowledge, and their respect for the land.
In 1788, large areas of Australia had been actively maintained by firestick farming, which greatly expanded habitat for the delicious critters that the natives loved to dine on. The Aborigines used both hot fires and cool fires to manage vegetation that was fire intolerant, fire tolerant, fire dependent, or fire promoting. Different fires were used to promote specific herbs, tubers, bulbs, or grasses. When starting a fire, the time and location was carefully calculated to encourage the desired result. According to Gammage, most of Australia was burnt about every one to five years. On any day of the year, a fire was likely burning somewhere.
The natives generally enjoyed an affluent lifestyle. They had learned how to live through hundred-year droughts and giant floods. No region was too harsh for people to inhabit. Their culture had taboos that set limits on reproduction and hunting. During the breeding seasons of important animals, hunting was prohibited near their gathering places. Lots of food resources were left untouched most of the time, a vital safety net. The Dreaming had two rules: obey the Law, and leave the world as you found it.
The colonists were clueless space aliens. Their glorious vision was to transfer a British way of life to a continent that was highly unsuited for it. Australia’s soils were ancient and minimally fertile, and the climate was bipolar — extreme multi-year droughts could be washed away by sudden deluges. But, they brought their livestock and plows and gave it a whirl. They believed that hard work was a virtue. The Aborigines were astonished to observe how much time and effort the silly newcomers invested in producing the weird stuff they ate.
The new settlers wanted to live like proper rural Brits — permanent homes, built on fenced private property. They freaked out when the natives set fires to maintain the grassland. Before long, districts began banning these burns. This led to the return of saplings and brush. So, in just 40 years, the site of a tidy dairy farm could be replaced by dense rainforest.
Without burning, insect numbers exploded. Without burning, fuels built up, leading to new catastrophes, called bushfires. The Black Thursday fire hit on February 6, 1851. It burned 12 million acres (5 million ha), killed a million sheep, thousands of cattle, and countless everything else.
Mark Brazil shared a story that was full of crap. In Britain, cow manure was promptly and properly composted by patriotic dung beetles, which returned essential nutrients to the soil. In Australia, none of the native dung beetles could get the least bit interested in cow shit. It was too wet, and too out in the open. Cow pies could patiently sit on the grass unmolested for four years, because nobody loved them. This deeply hurt their feelings.
Australian flies, on the other hand, discovered that cow pies made fabulous nurseries for their children. Each pat could feed 3,000 maggots, which turned into flies — dense clouds of billions and billions of flies — which the hard working Christians did not in any way fancy. Being outdoors was hellish. In the 1960s, folks imported British dung beetles, which loved the taste and aroma of cow pies. Oddly, this is one example where an introduced exotic species apparently didn’t create unintended consequences. When they ran out of pies to eat, the beetles simply died.
Anyway, a continent inhabited by Stone Age people was substantially altered by firestick farming and hunting. The Australia of 1788 was radically different from when the first human arrived. We’ll never know if continued firestick farming would have eventually led to severely degraded ecosystems. Some serious injuries can take a long time to fully develop. Many attempts to deliberately control ecosystems have spawned huge unintended consequences over time. For example, agriculture.
In the central U.S., the prairie ecosystem emerged in the last 8,000 to 10,000 years, displacing the tundra that had emerged as the ice sheets melted and withdrew. Prairies support complex biodiversity, with different mixes of species adapting to different mixes of soil types, moisture, and climate. Two hundred years ago, the prairies were home to 30 to 60 million bison, and numerous other herbivores.
Stephen Pyne wrote that when white colonists landed in America, the western portion of the Great Plains was shortgrass prairie, too dry to support forest. But the eastern portion was tallgrass prairie. Most of it had rainfall and soils suitable for forest, but Native Americans had gradually pushed back the forest cover. They maintained this highly productive prairie by burning it every three years or so. It provided excellent habitat for buffalo and other delicacies.
Burning was a common practice almost everywhere in North America. By A.D. 1000, the expansion of manmade grasslands enabled buffalo to cross the Mississippi River for the first time. By the 1600s, they had reached Massachusetts on the Atlantic coast. In some regions, forests were periodically burned to prevent the accumulation of brush. This was often done in late autumn, after the leaves had fallen. Pioneers commented that these fire-maintained forests resembled European parks. The open floor made it easier to travel, which sped the process of colonization.
Shepard Krech wrote that California Indians burned chaparral (dense brush) to entice deer. Along the east coast, there were oak openings (meadows with scattered trees) as large as 1,000 acres (404 ha). Manmade grasslands in the Shenandoah Valley covered a thousand square miles (2,590 km2). Indians in Oregon’s Willamette Valley engaged in extensive routine burning. When colonists ended this traditional burning, there was a tremendous recovery of forest in many regions. Krech noted that Indian fires sometimes exploded into raging infernos that burned for days, sometimes killing entire buffalo herds, up to a thousand animals.
Between about A.D. 800 and 1300, Indian agriculture greatly expanded, majoring in corn (maize), beans, and squash. Much of their cropland was former forest, and it was kept cleared by regular burning. Their fields were often 100 acres (40 ha), and sometimes 1,000. Because they had no livestock to produce manure for fertilizer, soils were often depleted in a few years. So, they cleared more forest, and the depleted fields once again grew trees. This cycle could be repeated until the soil was junk.
In the Midwest, where large areas of forest had been replaced by manmade tallgrass prairie, the topsoil was deep and highly fertile. Settlers, arriving with plows and draft animals, were able to turn the thick sod, plant grasses like corn and wheat, and reap impressive harvests. Today, maybe one percent of tallgrass prairie still survives. A number of states that were once primarily forest or tallgrass prairie are now sprawling farmland.
Michael Williams noted that as the diseases of civilization spread westward, Indians died in great numbers. They had zero immunity to highly contagious Old World pathogens. Diseases spread westward far faster than the expansion of settlers. The half-lucky Indians who survived the epidemics were herded into reservations. Consequently, the cycle of periodic burning stopped, and the forests quickly returned. The high mortality of disease resulted in extensive reforestation. Forests in 1750 may have been bigger and denser than they had been in the previous thousand years. When whites eventually arrived to create permanent agricultural communities, the regrown forests had to be cleared.
When the glaciers of the last ice age began melting, sea levels were very low, and England was connected by dry land to Ireland, Scandinavia, and continental Europe. Barry Cunliffe wrote that as the ice retreated, and the climate warmed, the newly exposed lands went through a sequence of transitions — from tundra, to steppe, and then forest. Essentially most of Western Europe became a vast forest. Large game thrived on the tundra and steppe, but the expansion of forests reduced grazing land area, and the abundance of large game.
By 9000 B.C., hunter-gatherers apparently made some small clearings in the forest to attract game. By 6000 B.C., England became disconnected from the continent by rising sea levels. By 4500 B.C., when farmers and herders began to trickle in, England was largely a forest, except for the highlands. Hunters dined on red deer, wild boar, and aurochs. By 3000 B.C., there were substantial clearances for cropland and pasture. By A.D. 1100, just 15 percent of Britain was forest. By 1919, it was five percent, Britannia was essentially stripped naked.
Jed Kaplan’s team of researchers wrote a paper on the prehistoric deforestation of Europe. It included stunning maps that illustrated the shrinkage of forests between 1000 B.C. and A.D. 1850. [MAP] Forests can be pushed back by killing them via burning, chopping, or girdling. Tropical primates are the only critters that have the spooky ability to create such massive change, affecting entire continents.
In the 1970s, Hugh Brody was working on a British documentary about the Inuit people of Canada. He had worked closely with an elder named Anaviapik, who had never travelled outside of his homeland. When the film editing was done, both got on a plane, and flew to London to bless the finished version. One day, Brody took Anaviapik for a drive in the countryside, and he was totally freaked out by what he saw. “It’s all built!” The natural face of the land had entirely been torn off, and replaced with manmade scars.
J. B. MacKinnon mentioned the story of a British scientist visiting the U.S. From an overlook in the White Mountain National Forest, he could gaze down on 800,000 acres of woodland — an overwhelming experience. The man burst into tears and had a long, hard cry. At Yellowstone, he saw wolves in the wild for the first time, and he dropped to his knees.
The story in Ireland was similar to Britain in many ways, but Ireland got much more rainfall, annually receiving 50 to 200 inches (127-508 cm) of precipitation. The wet climate encouraged the growth of lush temperate rainforests. Frederick Aalen noted that early hunter-gatherers arrived about 8,000 years ago, when the isle was covered with a dense unbroken forest. Folks lived along coastlines, lakes, and streams. In the forest they created some openings to attract game, but these were apparently small in scale.
Farmers and herders began arriving around 3500 B.C., and the long war on trees commenced. By the end of the 1600s, the destruction of native forests was nearly complete. When Aalen wrote in 1978, just three percent of the land was covered by natural forest or fake forest (tree farms). Deforestation had many unintended consequences. William MacLeish noted that in the good old days, the rainforest wicked up a lot of moisture from the land, and allowed the breezes to disperse it into the atmosphere. When the trees were gone, this dispersal ended, but the Gulf Stream continued delivering warm rainy weather from the Caribbean. Consequently, water tables rose, bogs spread, and ground turned acid.
If we disregard the serious damage caused by deforestation, Ireland seemed to be a perfect place for raising livestock. Winters were mild, the grass was green all year, and there was no need to grow, cut, and store hay for winter feed. Barns were not needed to protect livestock from the cold. Milk and meat were available all year round. Herding worked well, but the very rainy climate made it rather risky to grow grain, despite the rich soils.
In A.D. 1185, King Henry II sent Giraldus Cambrensis (Jerry of Wales) to Ireland and report on the conditions. His report mentioned many beautiful lakes, where some of the fish were larger than any he had ever seen before. Common freshwater fish included salmon, trout, eels, and oily shad. Along the coast, saltwater fish were abundant. The woods were home to “stags so fat that they lose their speed.” There were vast herds of boars and wild pigs. Small hares were numerous. Wolves had not yet been fully exterminated. He said it was common to see the remains of Irish elk, a species that vanished on the island before the arrival of humans. Their remains were commonly found in bogs, often in groups.
The Irish people lived like beasts, he wrote. They held agriculture in contempt, and had no interest in the glittering wealth of the outer world. There were large tracts of land suitable for crops, but folks had no interest in a shift to backbreaking drudgery. The herding life worked just fine. Cambrensis felt great pity for the uncivilized natives. “Their greatest delight was to be exempt from toil, and their richest possession was the enjoyment of liberty.”
Ireland was a great place to be a hunter-gatherer, as long as the clans avoided classic booboos like overhunting, overbreeding, or allowing the introduction of domesticated livestock and bloodthirsty colonizers. Unfortunately, booboos happen. The wild stags, wolves, and boars were perfectly adapted to the ecosystem, and caused no permanent injuries. Humans often have a difficult time smoothly blending into ecosystems. Will shamans ever discover a safe and effective cure for cleverness fever?