Scientists study the history of prescribed burns

Dec 16, 2009

Long before Europeans first set foot in the New World, Native Americans were altering the California landscape by setting fires, UC Berkeley researchers believe. A multidisciplinary team of scientists is looking at a variety of evidence to better understand the nature of Native American prescribed burns. The team includes ANR fire science professor Scott Stephens.

The study was described in the UC Berkeley College of Letters and Science newsletter ScienceMatters@Berkeley. The article said burning could have helped indigenous Californians in many ways.

"If you're a hunter-gatherer living off the land, burning allows you a lot more choice, especially if there's a period of drought or a particularly wet year," the story quoted Kent Lightfoot, an anthropology professor directing the project.

The research includes the study of soil cores to:

  • Identify plant species via the shapes of pollen
  • Determine the amount of charcoal in various layers
  • Sift through the remains of seeds and nuts
  • Recover grass phytoliths, rigid microscopic bodies that occur in many plants
In addition, Stephens and graduate student Chuck Striplen are examining fire scars in redwood tree cores to determine the historic frequency of local burns.

The study is being conducted in an area thought to be the site of an ancient settlement of Amah Mutsun Ohlone Native Americans, the article said. Striplen himself is of Amah Mutsun descent and is serving as a liaison between the scientists and the tribe.

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By Jeannette E. Warnert
Author - Communications Specialist