Before Columbus

There’s quite a debate going on about what the Americas – and in particular the Amazon – looked like before Columbus arrived. This has been the subject of a bestseller entitled 1491, whose main arguments are summarized by the author, Charles Mann, here. It is always dangerous to simplify academic controversies as being between two diametrically opposing camps, but I’ll do it anyway. One side thinks that population levels were high in the Americas in pre-Columbian times, and that even the Amazon was essentially a gigantic, closely managed orchard, hence talk of the “pristine myth.” The other side thinks that the real myth is that of a large, widespread human population in the Amazon. This has important practical implications because, inevitably, some have seized on the debate to argue that the Amazon could be more heavily exploited today, because it was in the past.

Coincidentally, there are stories today which summarize papers coming down on opposing sides of this argument.

According to this piece, Dolores R. Piperno of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama and National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, “found evidence of widespread fire use for land-clearing by pre-Colombian populations in Latin America” when she reconstructed vegetation patterns and fire histories from pollen, phytolyth and charcoal records.

Noting the vast body of research indicates the existence of large, dense, sedentary populations in the Amazon, Piperno implies that conservationists should come to terms with the fact that tropical forests have been cleared in the past as they are being cleared today, and then move forward with effective strategies for preserving what remains.

A different view emerges in this discussion of the work of Mark Bush of the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne. He looked at charcoal and pollen records at two Amazonian lakes and found that

…rather than being widely dispersed, people living in the Amazon most likely clustered near the good places, and that overall population numbers were likely not as high as the top estimates of pre-Columbian people.

This will run and run.

Want to save diversity? Talk to a local

A report from the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science says that “many animals and plants threatened with extinction could be saved if scientists spent more time talking with the native people whose knowledge of local species is dying out as fast as their languages are being lost”. David Harrison, the scientist whose work is reported, says that the recent DNA-based discovery that a butterfly known to taxonomists as Astraptes fulgerator was in fact three different species (or, perhaps, 10 — did the locals know that?) could have been made much sooner if the scientists had talked to the Tzeltal-speaking people of Mexico, because Tzeltal has several descriptions of the butterflies based on the different kinds of caterpillar. The people distinguish the larvae because the caterpillars eat the peoples crops, whereas the butterflies are of no significance.

“It’s crucial for them to know which larva is eating which crop and at what time of year. Their survival literally depends on knowing that, whereas the adult butterfly has no impact on their crops,” Harrison said.

There must be other agriculturally-informed examples, but the opposite is also often true, creating a nightmare for scientists interested in genetic diversity. Farmers may use the same name for completely different populations of a crop. And they may use different names for genetically identical populations. What’s a poor researcher to do?
p.s (There are a bunch of other studies about names and identity; can I find them? Can I heck.)

Hmong farming in Fresno

I’m fascinated by stories about farmers who insist on continuing to grow their traditional crops in unfamiliar or unusual surroundings. They speak to the strength of traditional food cultures, quite apart from representing interesting case studies in on-farm conservation. So I was sad to read this piece about the problems being encountered by Hmong farmers from Vietnam as a result of a recent cold spell in California. I’m sure they’ll cope in the short term, but it doesn’t look like this weird cultural outlier will last beyond the lifetime of the present farmers. All their children seem to be on scholarships to fancy universities. Although, perhaps some of them will study plant genetic resources conservation…

To cork or not to cork

Well, I’m officially in a quandary. On the one hand, with the risk of TCA-induced (that’s 2,4,6-trichloroanisole, a by-product of microbial activity) taint so high, there’s no reason except snobbishness for jettisoning natural cork for screw-tops and other ways of stopping wine bottles. On the other hand, as this article points out, producers are addressing quality concerns and cork is biodegradable, recyclable, and sustainably harvested from woodlands whose management over centuries has led to high levels of biodiversity. Pass the bottle.

Privatized trees roll back the desert

An article in the New York Times got a lot of traction among some of the more conservative-minded bloggers because it said that the ownership of things previously assumed to be a common good gave a better incentive to look after them. Fair enough. More interesting still is that the trees preserve soil and water, which enables a greater diversity of crops to go, which improves everyone’s livelihoods. I found the piece here, which has the link to the original article. And that, I think, is a much more illuminating and nuanced read.