July 09, 2009

The Mannahatta Project

Here's a scientific effort by the Wildlife Conservation Society to envision Manhattan Island before the white man arrived:

OverviewEver wondered what New York like before it was a city? Welcome to Mannahatta, 1609.

Now, after nearly a decade of research, the Mannahatta Project at the Wildlife Conservation Society has un-covered the original ecology of Manhattan. That’s right, the center of one of the world’s largest and most built-up cities was once a natural landscape of hills, valleys, forests, fields, freshwater wetlands, salt marshes, beaches, springs, ponds and streams, supporting a rich and abundant community of wildlife and sustaining people for perhaps 5000 years before Europeans arrived on the scene in 1609. It turns out that the concrete jungle of New York City was once a vast deciduous forest, home to bears, wolves, songbirds, and salamanders, with clear, clean waters jumping with fish. In fact, with over 55 different ecological communities, Mannahatta’s biodiversity per acre rivaled that of national parks like Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Great Smoky Mountains!

Today Manhattan is still habitat, but now that habitat is mainly given over to people. Understanding the ecology of Mannahatta helps us bring into focus the ecology of Manhattan today and plan for the urban ecosystem of the future, while at the same time enabling us to reflect upon the value of the wild “Mannahattas” that still exist in the world.
If you're wondering how Indians fit into the island ecology of 1609, here's how:

The Lenape--The Original New YorkersThe abundance of wildlife, the island’s location near the estuarine waters, and the hilly topography made Mannahatta a great home for the Native American Lenape people, who lived on the island when Hudson arrived. The Lenape and their ancestors lived on Mannahatta for perhaps 5000 years before European contact, obtaining all the food, water and materials they needed from the surrounding forests, wetlands and waters. In Northeast Algonquin culture, the Lenape were considered the “Ancient Ones”; they told legends of North America as “Turtle Island”; and their folklore suggests a close connection to the land and appreciation of their role, one among many, on Mannahatta.

We studied the effect of the Lenape on the landscape through computer models, based on the reconstructions described above. We used a wildfire model created by the U.S. Forest Service to estimate the effect of Native American fire on the landscape, showing that through repeated burning as little as once every 10 years, places like the Harlem Plains could be transformed from forest to grasslands. We also created a geographic model of shifting horticulture and estimated how much crops like corn, beans and squash (the traditional “three sisters” garden) contributed to their diet. Today after a long diaspora, Lenape people live in Oklahoma, Kansas, Wisconsin, New Jersey and Ontario, Canada.
Comment:  It's not clear if anything except the wildfire component shows the human changes to the landscape.

I don't know much about the Native presence on Manhattan, but it's possible that this model understates the Native role. The experts are starting to believe that Indians drastically modified every environment they lived in.

So the correct model might not be a couple of Native overlays on 10,000 years of "natural" layers. It might be 10,000 years of Native overlays on a couple of "natural" layers.

For more on the subject, see No Primitive Indians Here.

P.S. Thanks to correspondent DMarks for bringing this to my attention.

No comments: