First Nations are rare on earth except in America where things must have been dandy before we got there. The NW First Nations however, have a good press in more modern times at least. Nature Communications have come out with the standard marine influence on terrestrial forest ecosystems, but with a new slant on the contribution of Native American peoples who had shellfish middens to supplement the calcium and phosphorus of soils. Western red cedar, Thuja plicata is a dominant in the exceptionally wet forests thereabout. They were taller, had more wood calcium, greater radial growth and less die-back when growing on these middens. This means a reverse of the norm which is universal human degradation of their environment. Not to say that controlled burning, soil terracing and many other such habits don’t help the environment to sustain a natural stability. It’s just that such epic fails have occurred so often in human history.
Andrew J. Trant, Wiebe Nijland, Kira M. Hoffman, Darcy L. Mathews,Duncan McLaren, Trisalyn A. Nelson and Brian M. Starzomski of the Universities of Waterloo, Victoria (Canada) and Arizona State (US) and the Hakai Institute on BCs Calvert Island wrote the paper entitled,
Intertidal resource use over millennia enhances forest productivity, but the headlines have concentrated on the idea of people (only NW Native Americans) actually enhancing their environment. The only trouble with this argument is that their actions were a sort of benign, unintended action over 13,000 years, with colonisation beginning shortly after the Last Glacial Maximum.That argues just a little for the human reputation for greed and unsustainability.
The First Americans of the Northwest are possibly the most vibrant (and long-lasting) of civilisations, with oral and archaeological evidence of their status. The various tribes such as the local Heiltsuk live on the actual shoreline, using root gardens, hunting on land and gathering fish in stone fish traps and clams from their shores. The waste disposal of these clam shells and others in 5m high middens is typical of coastal humans everywhere, but on a larger scale. Here the shells were used to form terracing and drainage too. Many of these tribes were wiped out by epidemics like diphtheria and smallpox in the 19th century, but the cedars that grew on the middens have been used for bark and wood (often a kind of tribal trunk decoration) continuously since then, with little commercial logging to destroy such evidence for us to see.
Salmon have often been quoted as temporarily supplying many other marine nutrients to the terrestrial ecosystems of heir predators and scavengers, but calcium is an elemental resource that lasts longer than most. Used by every cell wall in every plant cell, forests run out of calcium very quickly. And so its concentration becomes a limiting factor.
The sites concerned in this study have an unknown set of ecological conditions previous to colonisation by the First Peoples. The cedars have only been present for around 8,000 years, for example! What is indisputable about these areas is that the soil chemistry is heavily influenced by the shell calcium and carbon from hearths and low severity fires. The soil pH obviously rises and productivity is significantly higher on and near human-occupied sites. One obvious result of that is the release of more phosphate for enhanced growth in trees and many other plant species.
The end result of this one long occupation was sheer enhancement of a natural ecosystem, especially of the dominant western red cedar in terms of height, radial growth etc. Every organism in the system would have benefitted, and the Heiltsuk and others obviously did too. Their history is a commendable and sustainable one, with many lessons to be learnt. Good times and sad times, mixed with a rich cultural inheritance can lead to an enhanced modern existence, going by their current situation in Canadian life.
More information on modern sustainable practice is a sadder read. In 2011 at least, 90% of our tropical forests, packed full of rare and valuable hardwoods, were totally unprotected, according to this report in the Japanese,
Status of Tropical Forest Management.