Saturday, September 05, 2009

Indigenous environmental damage and environmentalism

NY Times had an interesting article a week or two ago about marine ecosystems being damaged by ancient humans in many different areas of the world due to overexploitation.

I've been interested for a while now in variations of the idea of prehistoric environmental damage and environmental management. There's no debate that island-hopping humans killed off many flightless bird species long before European sailors started doing the same thing. The evidence that humans killed off ice-age mammals in North America and that Mayan overuse of the environment caused their collapse also seems pretty strong to me.

The general concept would be that ancient humans exploited and damaged their environments to the full extent that their technology and population levels would allow - in other words, just like us. The main difference from moderns is their technology stabilized or changed slowly, limiting human populations, and a new equilibrium was reached until European peoples and technologies were introduced.

The few exceptions to this rule, where indigenous peoples could have damaged their environment but didn't, are even more interesting. The Polynesian concepts of taboos, tapu, and rahui all protected resources.

Another potential exception that I haven't seen discussed is salmon fishing. While native cultures couldn't wipe out salmon runs on rivers, they could do so on small creeks. The fact that they didn't is pretty interesting, and something I'd like to know more about. Maybe some other examples are out there, too.

And with that, I'll be traveling for a while, so no posting for ten days or so.

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