Tag Archives: ethnoecology

New Map of Old North America Shows Indian Tribal Nations; what causes variation in tribe density?

Aaron Carapella has compiled all the original (self-identified) names of the American Indians on a map showing the locations of their original homes. It immediately gives a sense of the extent and variety of Indians occupying the continent.

See the full story here: The Map of Native American Tribes You’ve Never Seen Before

Or go straight to the PDF file of the map: Tribal_Nations_Map_of North America

There is a separate map for Mexico you can find in the article.


Ethnoecological hypotheses for high density of Indian tribes and populations in California and the coastal Pacific Northwest:

Like other similar maps produced before (which usually show the names colonists gave to Indians, such as “Costanoan” for SF Bay Area Indians, which just means inhabiting the coast), another remarkable feature is the high diversity of tribes in California, as well as the Pacific Coast. I’d attribute this high diversity, which goes along with notably large original populations (Heizer and Elsasser 1980), to the high diversity and productivity of ecosystems in these regions.

by Aaron Carapella

Detail of Tribal Nations map showing California and most of Nevada. Full map by Aaron Carapella

The unit of land-ownership for the American Indians was a watershed (Heizer and Elsasser 1980). Indian tribes would own both sides of a creek or river, and the mountains behind them with their tributaries, ending at the ridgetops that began another tribe’s territory (Heizer and Elsasser 1980). The wrinkled topography, caused by the geologic uplift from the subduction of the Pacific plate along the coast, has led to many distinct watersheds concentrated in a small area in California and the Pacific Northwest coast.

Thus the high density of tribes may be simply a result of the division of tribal groups by the high density of watersheds. If one looks at a map of the watersheds, the tribes do seem to be at least partly corresponding to different watersheds. If the names map had higher resolution, reflecting how each of these tribes divided into smaller groups and tribelets, this hypothesis would probably be better supported.

Interestingly, larger tribe groups tend to mirror the hierarchical structure of the watersheds, claiming large watersheds (different colors in the below map), and their constituent tribes claiming smaller watersheds within (different shades of one color in the below map).


Another, related reason for the high density of tribal names and population size is the ecology of the area. The massive trees of the coastal Pacific Northwest, along with their lush understories, forming specialized assemblages in every nook and cranny of the convoluted topography, gives rise to ecosystems with a huge variety and abundance of plant and animal life, next to ecosystems that are entirely different yet close-by. The Indians of the Pacific Northwest, relying upon these profuse plants and animals, therefore did not have to harvest from a large area of land to meet their needs, but could live in peace with close neighbors and at high population densities without risk of hunger.

Supporting this latter hypothesis is the recent synthetic finding of Ethnobotanists is that regions of high biological diversity strongly correlate with regions of highest linguistic and cultural diversity (Carlson and Maffi 2004, Nolan and Turner 2011).

A final alternative hypothesis is simply that by the time ethnographies were conducted to record all the names of the tribes, the areas with fewer tribal names had already been decimated, leaving few behind to have their names recorded. Although California and the west coast was indeed some of the last territory to be settled and the Indians rounded up and exterminated, this hypothesis is refutable by comparing to the east coast.

The eastern coast, the first areas to be settled and the Indians persecuted, has a similarly high density of tribal names, though somewhat more dispersed or clumped. Note also Florida and along the southeast coast there is a rather high density of tribes, and that these areas have remarkably high diversity of plant life, though are not very mountainous. These patterns, along with the general tendency for high tribal name density on the map to correlate well with mountainous areas and/or areas of high plant diversity, lends support to the watershed and/or ecological diversity hypotheses I gave above.

Further support of these hypotheses can be seen in the areas of low density of tribal names. The mountainous eastern Rockies, though dense with watersheds, have very little water. These deserts and dry forests have low plant diversity, and accordingly seem to support few tribes, at presumably low population densities. Furthermore, the midwest, the belt from Canada to Texas about two states wide, consists of flat grasslands; areas with low density of watersheds and little environmental heterogeneity. Despite its high soil fertility and productivity of grazing animals, predictably, this area also has low density of tribal names, and presumably, Indian populations. Similarly, in the far north, where boreal forest, tundra, or arctic ecosystems predominate, there is a low density of tribal names, and presumably populations, since these ecosystems are very homogenous, with low plant diversity and low productivity of plant energy.

To put it (somewhat) simply, humans are animals too, and just as how animal diversity (at the levels of genotypes, populations, and species) is directly positively related to plant diversity and environmental heterogeneity, so is the diversity of Homo sapiens (here presumably at the genotypic, and population / cultural levels) directly positively related to plant diversity and environmental heterogeneity (namely density of watersheds).



Carlson, T. and L. Maffi (eds.). 2004. Ethnobotany and conservation of biocultural diversity. Advances in economic botany Vol. 15. Botanical Garden Press, New York, NY.

Heizer, Robert F. and Albert B. Elsasser. 1980. The natural world of the California Indians. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.

Nolan, J. M. and N. J. Turner. Ethnobotany: the study of people-plant relationships. In Anderson, E. N., D. M. Pearsall, E. S. Hunn, and N. J. Turner (eds.). 2011. Ethnobiology. Wiley-Blackwell, Hoboken, NJ.

Zen Affluence of Hunter-gatherers

Ringtail Cats

The traditional view of hunter-gatherer or “subsistence” cultures is that their life was generally “a precarious and arduous struggle for existence” (Lee 1968).

In Leviathan, Hobbes sums up this view of “primitive” man without government in a quote, of which the last part especially has become a famous reference to such cultures:

“No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death: and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”(Hobbes 1651)

However, empirical data on living hunter-gatherers (even though they tend to inhabit marginal, unproductive lands that agro-industrial cultures see as worthless) show a radically different picture (Lee 1968).

It should be obvious that our modern culture, though more connected than ever with the internet, is ironically the most lonely ever. The more “primitive” the culture, the less its “development,” the more socially connected it is.


View original post 1,131 more words

Featured Image -- 148

Winter Foraging

Ringtail Cats

On Saturday, Emily and I went on a foray for mushrooms at a park on the SF peninsula. We were with MSSF people who were out to collect for the fungus fair which was the following day. But the rains were super late this fall, and despite the fact that it poured on Friday, the mushrooms were apparently quite scarce. Chris Schoenstein, the leader of the foray, told us just one good rain in Sept. would’ve probably been enough, and kept pointing out areas that were rife with mushrooms on the same day the year prior.

Good thing plants are always around. I wasn’t too bothered by the dearth of mushrooms since there was plenty of edible and useful flora to gather. See my cornucopia of a haul:

Image Toyon berries, bay nuts, buckeye seeds, soaproot bulbs with fibrous covering and young shoots, mint leaves, two spp. of mushrooms, an oak…

View original post 1,959 more words

Featured Image -- 114

Oyster Mushroom Gathering

Ringtail Cats

The rains have finally begun here in the east SF bay area, and you know what all they promise?…. Mushrooms!!! That’s right, from the toxic to tasty, they’re a-springing up everywhere in the dank woods.

Now being from a highly fungophobic culture, no one has ever personally showed me what wild mushrooms are good to eat. Although Chris Hobbs once ID’d some pics I’d taken of a Boletus sp. for me back when we were co-gsi’s for intro bio:

Boletus rubripes Boletus rubripes – bitter bolete

Boletus rubripes - bitter bolete Boletus rubripes – bitter bolete

But with All That the Rain Promises and More, plus Mushrooms Demystified by David Arora, perhaps the best field guides ever written on any subjects, I’ve finally gone and collected huge bunches of wild edible oyster mushrooms, and feasted on their tasty flesh!

I was also able to identify some toxic and artistic mushrooms on the same foray!

I love eating…

View original post 1,727 more words

Historical Human Footprint on Modern Tree Species Composition in Central Amazonia

Ringtail Cats

Historical Human Footprint on Modern Tree Species Composition in the Purus-Madeira Interfluve, Central Amazonia

Just as has/is still being discovered in the US, recent research in the Amazon supports the idea that forests worldwide are the product of mutualist interactions with human inhabitants.

Burning, selective harvest, tillage, seed propagation, etc. were skillfully employed by ancient peoples to make their environment an “edible forest.”

Such cultures were the original affluent societies, working only a few hours per day to harvest the forest burgeoning with ultra-healthy wild foods and resources for tools, usually spending more of their time dancing than working (see Chagnon 1983 and Gowdy 1998).

These findings suggest the idea of “preserving” nature, or cordoning off huge tracts of forest to keep it “wild” is nonsensical, and perpetuates the harmful idea that humans are separate from nature. To restore these ecosystems and have humans and other creatures flourish together, we…

View original post 191 more words

Featured Image -- 59

Did the first known humans in the Americas live in Brazil or Central Texas?

Ringtail Cats

Recently, news articles have been suggesting that the earliest archeological finding of human inhabitants in all the Americas is at at Toca da Bastiana rockshelter at Serra da Capivara National Park, Piaui, Brazil. At this sandstone overhang shelter, rock paintings of red ochre symbolizing humans, animals, and designs were found.

These “cave-paintings” were found under a 2 mm thick layer of the mineral calcite, suggesting the antiquity of the paintings. Calcite is formed when water deposits calcium-rich minerals on a rock surface over time, which builds up gradually with successive wettings and dryings of the rock surface. Very similar to how stalactites and stalagmites form in caves. When the calcite crystals first form out of aqueous solution, their radioactive decay first begins, and so they keep the radio-carbon “signature” of the time of their formation.

Watanabe et al. (2003) decided to radio-carbon date the calcite layer, since they supposed…

View original post 898 more words

Coining Ethnoecology

Ringtail Cats

“…a Etnoecologia tem a singular tarefa de decifrar a “memória de nossa espécie”, isto é, a memória biocultural, reivindicando e revalorizando a quem a mantêm em vez de aprofundar a crítica sobre o mundo moderno e sua racionalidade intelectual.”

“…la Etnoecología tiene la singular tarea de descifrar la “memoria de nuestra especie”, esto es, la memoria biocultural, reivindicando y revalorizando a quienes la mantienen a la vez de profundizar la critica sobre el mundo moderno y su racionalidad intelectual.”

“…ethnoecology has the singular task of deciphering the “memory of our species”, that is the bio-cultural memory, recognizing and re-evaluating those peoples who maintain it while bringing new depth to criticism of the Modern world and its intellectual rationality.”

Toledo, V. M. and N. Barrera-Bassols. 1992. A etnoecologia: uma ciencia pos-normal que estuda as sabedorias tradicionais / Ethnoecology: a post-normal science studying traditional Knowledge and Wisdom. In Etnobiologia e Etnoecologia: pessoas…

View original post 16 more words