Friday, October 19, 2007

Human impacts on pre-Columbian tropical forests

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research

When European naturalists first visited the New World Tropics they saw vast forests that seemed untouched by humans. While indigenous people often lived in these forests, their populations were small. This led to a perception of tropical forests as primeval, “virgin” forests. In the last few decades, this perception has changed - large areas now covered by mature forests have a history of cultivation. In many cases, “primeval” forests are less than 500 years old.

La Selva biological station in Costa Rica is one of the premier research stations for Neotropical biology. Prior to archaeological study of the site, much of it was assumed to be free of human influence. However, the discovery of pre-Columbian artefacts led to the discovery that the site had been occupied at least 3000 years ago. Charcoal was more abundant in alluvial terraces (flatter areas with deeper, more fertile soil) and less abundant in the less fertile upland soils. A chronology, established by Sol (2000)*, divided the La Selva into four archaeological phases: La Cabaña 1000 – 1550 CE; La Selva 500 – 1000 CE; El Bosque 300 BCE– 500 CE; La Montaña 1500 –300 BCE.

To better understand the history of the site, Lisa Kennedy of Virginia Tech and Sally Horn of the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, undertook a study of sediment cores extracted from the Cantarra swamp*, a 0.5 ha wetland dominated by perennial herbs. They used pollen, charcoal and macrofossils to reconstruct the environmental history of the site. Wetlands are frequently used to reconstruct vegetation histories. As sediments accumulate in bodies of water, plant pollen, fern spores and charcoal fragments are trapped. Pollen coats are extremely tough, and decay takes place very slowly in waterlogged soils. If the vegetation surrounding the site changes, different types of pollen will be deposited into the site. Someone with the patience to sort through these cores can observe thousands of years of history in a few metres of sediment.

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  1. Sol, C., R. F. 2000. Asentamientos prehispánicos en la Reserva Biológica La Selva, Sarapiquí, Costa Rica: Sistemas de explotación de recursos naturales en un bosque tropical lluvioso. Licenciatura thesis, School of Anthropology and Sociology, University of Costa Rica.
  2. Lisa M. Kennedy, Sally P. Horn. A Late Holocene Pollen and Charcoal Record from La Selva Biological Station, Costa Rica. Biotropica (OnlineEarly Articles). doi:10.1111/j.1744-7429.2007.00334.x

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