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24 April 2010
Stalagmite reveals carbon footprint of early Native Americans

Chemical analysis of a stalagmite found in the mountainous Buckeye Creek basin of West Virginia (USA) suggests that native people contributed a significant level of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere through land use practices. The early Native Americans burned trees to actively manage the forests to yield the nuts and fruit that were a large part of their diets.
    "They were very advanced, and they knew how to get the most out of the forests and landscapes they lived in. This was all across North America, not just a few locations," said Gregory Springer, an associate professor of geological sciences at Ohio University and lead author of the study
    Initially, Springer and research collaborators from University of Texas at Arlington and University of Minnesota were studying historic drought cycles in North America using carbon isotopes in stalagmites. To their surprise, the carbon record contained evidence of a major change in the local ecosystem beginning at 100 BCE. This intrigued the team because an archeological excavation in a nearby cave had yielded evidence of a Native American community there 2,000 years ago.
    The team found very high levels of charcoal beginning 2,000 years ago, as well as a carbon isotope history similar to the stalagmite. This evidence suggests that Native Americans significantly altered the local ecosystem by clearing and burning forests, probably to make fields and enhance the growth of nut trees, Springer said. This picture conflicts with the popular notion that early Native Americans had little impact on North American landscapes. This long-ago land clearing would have impacted global climate, Springer added.

Source: Physorg.com (15 April 2010)

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