Fifteen Events That Have Shaped California’s Human Landscape



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Settlement by the First Peoples, 15,000 Years Ago


Landscapes in California have been dramatically altered and shaped by humans for at least fifteen millennia. Indeed, approximately 15,000 years ago people settled permanently in California and began humanizing processes that are revealed in the state’s contemporary settings. The aboriginal legacy is observed most readily in the wild lands of California but is expressed as well among settled landscapes.

California was sporadically visited during the initial migrations that introduced Old World humans to the Western Hemisphere. This period coincided with the last glacial, or Late Wisconsin, stage of the Pleistocene epoch. By 15,000 years ago, descendants of these first migrants accompanied by more recent arrivals from the Old World, came to stay and make California their permanent home. They trave1ed to the area of the future state by both land and sea and adapted to environments governed exclusively by natural processes (Erlandson et al. 1996).

At the same time, California was experiencing rapid climate-induced changes as the glacial period subsided and the transition to modern or Holocene conditions progressed. Despite these environmental fluctuations, the first permanent settlers skillfully and successfully adapted previous lifeways to a variety of habitats within California. Immigrants who arrived by sea initially subsisted on plants, small terrestrial animals, and marine life that thrived along California’s coast (Jones 2000). Those who entered California by land were accustomed to big game hunting as a means of survival. They discovered a fertile setting for their traditional economic pursuits owing to the state’s diverse assemblage of late Ice Age megafauna. Due to the hunters’ skill as well as the animals’ inexperience with human predators, approximately 75 percent of the larger (100 pounds or more at maturity) genera of game animals were liquidated within a few thousand years (Martin 1984, 258). As a consequence, subsequent human residents inherited a relatively impoverished zoogeographical landscape where such animals as mammoths, saber toothed cats, and ground sloths were no longer part of the biota. One can only conjecture what portion of the megafauna would have survived to the historic period had these hunters not come when they did. However, the composition of the contemporary fauna and the structure of associated habitats would be markedly different (Owen-Smith 1987).

Owing in part to the substantial reduction of the state’s large game, Native Californians redirected their predation to the remaining fauna and intensified their utilization of the state’s impressive array of plants. Although few large species were driven to extinction after 6000 years ago, favored marine and terrestrial animals were locally decreased by hunting to the point that they became insignificant in aboriginal diets and resource areas (Broughton 1994, 372; Douros 1993, 557-58). These animals include various pinnipeds, otters, bears, beavers, and ungulates such as elk, antelope, and deer.

Ancient animal depletions and extinctions continue to influence contemporary landscape expressions in myriad ways. The structure and species content of ecosystems are determined from the bottom up by flora that is largely an expression of climate and also from the top down through the actions of animals. A change in any one of these factors results in alterations that cascade through much of, if not the entire, ecosystem (Huntly 1995). The relationship between otters and kelp beds provides an example. California’s kelp bed habitats are dependent on solar energy as well as upon otters that prey on sea urchins that, in turn destroy kelp. The removal or reduction of sea Otters by humans will unleash alterations that ripple through the kelp habitat (Estes et al. l978). Every terrestrial animal, to a greater or lesser extent, also exhibits analogous engineering roles in their respective ecosystems. The elimination of at least 75 percent of the megafauna and the subsequent reductions in the spatial and numerical presence of surviving wildlife by California’s first peoples yielded environmental changes that are interwoven into the character of the state’s contemporary aquatic and terrestrial landscapes (Lawton and Jones 1995, 141).

Pre-Columbian people also contributed to the con temporary presence of certain animals by transporting species to alien habitats. The introduction of foxes to the Channel Islands by Native Californians is one example (Schoenherr 1992, 708-09). The intentional modification of vegetation communities by fire and other means further altered animal demographics and distributions by increasing or decreasing the carrying capacity of some habitats. For example, the expansion of grassy prairies in the redwood forests of northwestern California increased the carrying capacity for preferred animals like deer (Dasmann 1994, 19; Lewis and Ferguson 1999, 167-68). These modifications then rebounded onto the vegetation communities due to the resulting increases or decreases of these animals’ engineering influence.

Due primarily to population pressure and the depletion of large game, Native Californians compensated by using a host of techniques to increase their vegetative resources. These included the applications of fire, pruning, coppicing, weeding, transplanting, and broadcasting (Blackburn and Anderson 1993). Where the first Californians used these practices on a sustained basis, they markedly restructured landscapes and altered their species content.

Sustained burning reduced understory in both coastal and inland woodlands. In frequently burned oak groves, a spacing of single oaks developed that later colonial people described as “oak park woodlands” (Anderson and Morratto 1996, 200; Rossi 1979, 84-90). Furthermore, the distribution of chaparral associations on coastal and interior hill slopes still reflects the ancient effects of anthropomorphic fire (Schoenherr 1992, 28-362). At higher elevations in the Sierra Nevada and Cascade ranges, intentional aboriginal burning complemented lightning fires in allowing the expansion of fire-dependent forest trees such as ponderosa pine and sequoias. Indeed, everywhere in the state’s lowlands where human-set fires were common, grasslands expanded at the expense of brush and woods (Bakker 1971, 168-69, 186).

In some locations, native peoples augmented fire with other horticultural techniques to improve the quality and abundance of floral resources. Plant species were both intentionally and unintentionally disseminated by broadcasting and transplanting as well as through processing and storage. For example, many of the oak trees observed around bedrock mortar sites result from acorns the Native Californians transported there (Anderson et al. 1997, 37-38; Bonnicksen et al. 2000, 453). These practices had consequences that extended beyond the organic world. For instance, intense management by native peoples increased and made more reliable local water yields (Biswell1989, 156; Shipek 1993). Colonial processes curtailed and quickly terminated native people’s manipulation of vegetation. Nevertheless, over thousands of years Native Californians shaped the organic stage on which these subsequent, often extreme, developments occurred. Their ancestral practices thus remain integrated in various degrees within the fabric of many contemporary wild lands (Anderson and Moratto 1996, 194). Modern land managers in government reserves like Sequoia National Park have adopted one of these ancient practices, prescribed burning (Biswell 1989).

The heritage of Native Californians is also manifest in a variety of settled landscapes. Historically, the altered aboriginal territories first observed by European and North American explorers helped formulate impressions of the settlement and economic opportunities in the region. These initial interpretations had bearing on the eventual geography and economy of coastal settlement by the Spanish. The siting of missions and the associated infrastructure of roads, ports, presidios, and pueblos are cases in point (Butzer 1990, 50; Hornbeck 1983, 4045). Albeit not as pervasive, a variety of prehistoric cultural settings endure in many locations and influence modern landscapes. For example, portions of many roads and highways follow ancient aboriginal pathways (Davis 1961).

Remnants of native settlements, resource processing areas, art work, and battle sites accentuate the rural environs of nearly every county, and at times provide destinations for tourists. These include Captain Jack’s (Kientpoos) stronghold in Lava Beds National Monument in Modoc County and Indian Grinding Rock State Park in Amador County. Furthermore, nearly every one of the state’s missions, presidios, and military forts boasts Native Californian interpretive components (Eargle 1993 155-79). Roadside businesses, signs, and interpretive centers are just few of the landscape features generated to entice visitors to these locations.

The contemporary descendants of California’s first people also have a measurable and growing impact on the state’s landscape. More than a quarter of a million Native Americans populate the state in the year 2000 and their numbers continue to grow. Many of these people live on over one-half million acres of tribal lands that are distributed in more than 100 locations (Peters et al. 1999, 180-83). Beginning in the 1980s, gaming casinos began to proliferate on tribal lands and number more than forty at present. They lure thousands of visitors and generate unparalleled wealth for various Native California groups. A portion of the earned revenue has been invested in infrastructure additions and improvements on tribal lands. In addition, native peoples hold an impressive number of festivals, dances, powwows, and other events on and off tribal lands that are open to the public (Eargle 1993, 180-83). All of these attractions have spawned an increasing presence of lodging, advertising, and other business opportunities in their vicinities. These most modern additions combine with the millennia of alterations that have permanently affected California’s human landscape to belie the familiar axiom that colonial peoples erased the Native Californian legacy from the earth.


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