A Stable Kalapuyan Anthropogenic-Environmental Model?

It is noted that humans have had an extreme effect on the environment everywhere they have lived. These changes became much more radical some 12,000 years ago when agriculture was developed. In the Willamette Valley the tribes did not develop agriculture. They did instead participate in seasonal anthropogenic fires, and seasonal harvesting of foods, at least as far back as 8,000 years.

The Kalapuyans divided their year in half with the summer season for the tribe began in the spring with movements to gathering camps for early vegetables and fruits. Their year began in autumn as stated on the 1877 Gatschet Calendar collected from the Tualatin people. Presumably, they were too busy gathering food and traveling about their lands in the spring, summer and early fall to notice the passage of the days. The winters in Oregon can be dull, grey and extremely wet with rain and drizzle. So from October to  March or April people remained indoors and made baskets, ropes and nets, clothing, from stored weaving materials. Men would spend time making bows and arrows, weapons and tools, perhaps doing some hunting. This was a time for storytelling and busywork to help the time pass. The people lived in partially underground plankhouses.

Kalapuya Calendar Gatschet 1877


Through the summers the Kalapuyans moved about their land in small family groups to establish short duration camps for food harvesting  They would move to where camas and berries were ripening or to where fish were running, or deer and elk readily available. When birds came through Oregon in their annual migrations from southern to northern latitudes, Natives hunted them by the dozens in wetlands. Vegetable foods were easier to find, and did not run away when hunted. So the people planned to follow the vegetable calendar to gather foods that they could easily and quickly find. They likely had visited the same Oak groves and Camas patches as their parents and grandparents, for hundreds and thousands of years, and so knew exactly where the food was growing and waiting for them to harvest.

Deer, elk, and other animals were extremely difficult to hunt, they could swiftly run away, and easily sense men. The tribes would hunt the male deer by making a male decoy head they would wear to attract the male deer to advance upon them and challenge them. Once the deer advanced a swift arrow would take down the deer. Elk were tougher, stronger. Native men would take sweats or bathe in a greenwood smoke from a fire the evening before to mask their scent. Then stealthily hunt the elk. On hillsides elk pit may be dug to trick elk to fall and break their legs and so they could be easily captured. Some elk would be driven into lakes and marshes and slow them down, and some could be captured by extremely strong snares constructed to snare any elk or deer. Natives used a lot of trickery to hunt, suggesting that they did not have to spend all of their time hunting, but instead simply clear the traps every day.

Hunting changed dramatically when the guns were introduced. Guns might not have been all that effective, or more effective than hunting the way the tribes did. Guns were loud and the noise would make the game hide. Then Americans were extremely loud, not stealthy at all. In numerous accounts of travels through Oregon, many gun hunters would come back to camp empty-handed.

Looking at the evidence, there is much to suggest that the tribes relied more on plants for food than animals. There was so much plant food in the Willamette Valley that animals and fishes would only be an estimated 20% of their diet. In light of this question of what percentage of the tribal diet was plants and animals and fishes, it would be good to look back at the archaeological evidence of resources gathered to see if we cannot establish a model of what varieties and quantities of food they ate through the past 10,000 years.

Anthropogenic fires set by Native peoples in the Fall, late September to October, helped manage the land. The fires cleared extra woody debris, dead and dying seasonal plants, and those nutrients went back into the soils. Insects who died in the infernos were deposited in the soil. Infestations of rodents and insects would be cleared out by the fires. The fires would go into the forests and clear out the extra woody debris of the last season on the forest floors. These maintenance fires would barely effect the valley trees.  Fire-resistant trees would survive and those not resistant would not. Plants with bulbs or seeds in the earth would survive and return in the next season. These fires would clean the land, providing an opportunity for the land to be reborn a month or a season later. The long term fire regimen operated to adapt and evolve the plants and animals to a regular fire managed regimen. So the whole ecosystem is then fully a human-managed anthropogenic environment.

The fires served to maintain the environment, and by burning all of the excess dead debris, they eliminated the probability of massively destructive fires, fires which remained and burned longer and deeper, through the bark of even the fire-resistant trees.  Since the late 19th century, Americans have adopted the theory that we must preserve all of our forests and the timber by eliminating forest fires. This policy has allowed the build up of massive stockpiles of woody debris. Then also today’s forests are planted with trees too close together. the plan is to make as much wood as possible per acres. The closely packed agricultural groves are perfect tinderboxes in hot dry conditions.  Today, when fires are either set by humans or are from natural lightning strikes, they burn more destructively than even in the known past. The fires are hotter, last longer, and they kill fire resistant trees and plants, causing massive environmental destruction. They burn so deeply into the forest floor that they even kill the seeds of the next generation of trees. By putting out fires, as a national policy, we are causing the wholesale destruction of our environment. We can see the pattern in the way that massive fires hit a forest every 30-40 years, if it is not burned and maintained. We should be planning better, setting maintenance fires one to two years after these forest fires to thereafter maintain the forests better.

Native peoples from 8,000-12,000 years ago began setting fires to maintain their lands. They created a stable environment which kept the same character for some 8,000 years because of their activities. When settlers came in the 19th century, this was all interrupted and now we have massive environmental destruction, from fires, over-logging, agriculture, river channel changes, all of which have altered animal fish and plant communities. We are less environmentally diverse that ever before and getting more-so, to the detriment of the environment we live in. Even the floods of the next season are related to the forest fires, since there is not even vegetation alive to hold water, and so the water from seasonal rains simply flows off the land, causing floods. Destructive forest fires kill even the next generation of growth, so the environment struggles to be reborn as we normally expect.

Camas meadow among Oak Trees, Bush Park, Salem Oregon, 2013

If its true that Native peoples created a stable environment with less natural disasters, did they stagnate evolution in the valley? Some recent theories about evolution suggest that animals and plants evolve faster (disaster-forced biological evolution model) when there are extreme catastrophic natural disasters forcing them to change. There are many examples of this happening in the world. If the Willamette Valley was made artificially stable through Kalapuyan anthropogenic fire, which eliminating massive destruction fires (every 30 years or so) possibly causing extreme stress or extermination threats to animal and plant communities, then these communities became adapted to the stable environment. The only really destructive situations would then be 100 year floods, Missoula floods, earthquakes, mudslides, volcanic eruptions, tsunami (which did not effect the valley). So if this is the case, the anthropogenic effect of the Kalapuyans, then did they create less competitive species through a process of stagnation of evolution? Did this in turn allow for easy environmental colonization of the land by invader species of animals and plants?

If we accept the disaster model for evolution, than evolution is not a gradual process, but instead makes rapid changes, where are we seeing these changes today in our lands, from the last 180-odd years of colonization? Certainly, we have seen numerous extinctions of animals and plants. We have seen some thrive, coyotes and deer seem to thrive. Many invader species also thrive. It is unsettling to not see any relief to our environment, where it is allowed time and space to recover. There is no time when humans are not constantly seeking to destroy some portion of it. As our culture is constantly changing, we are also rapidly changing, too fast for our environment to adapt and rebound. Either we make conscious decisions to preserve part of the land or we simply allow it to be destroyed forever.

A conscious decision may be, to live within the seasons and foods and resources the lands give us. to make use of the resources around us, to again choose to eat camas, acorns and wapato and by doing so we will make space for these plants to thrive. Today. our restored lands are not normally used for food, the foods are wasted and many times the land is seen as a park, where the land is not to be touched, as if it is a piece of art to be admired only by people who occasionally hike through it on trails. But the land is full of food and we only need to begin harvesting it. I properly manage the environment in a stable model, we would be harvesting the food, as the Kalapuyans did, which helped create the stable environment.

One problem, is that our relationship with our environment is dysfunctional. Humans are exploitative and destructive, and do not, to a large enough degree, see themselves as co-equals to the environments where our lives, health, and well-being depends on the health of the environmental systems around us. Humans do not not accept that they are dependent on the environment and the environment is dependent on us. That our relationship properly is in the model of a steward to the land we live in, where our stewardship creates a healthy and functional stable environment for not just humans, but everything, animals, birds, fishes, and plants.

The question is how does our present civilization get (back) to a stable environment model?

For anyone wishing to restore our environment, these are factors that must be taken into account.

Leave a Reply