The extent of human impact on world environments is undeniable. At scales ranging from local to global, investigations continue to demonstrate that the ecosystems to which we currently belong are structured by human behavior. Catastrophic events such as war, disaster, disease, or economic decay have, at various times throughout history, led to the human abandonment of particular environments.

Questioning Rebound

What happens to a human-structured environment when the manner in which people use it abruptly changes? In Questioning Rebound, authors Emily Lena Jones, professor of Anthropology at The University of New Mexico, and Jacob L. Fisher, professor of Anthropology at California State University, Sacramento, explore the archaeological record of the Americas during the period immediately following European contact, a time when the human footprint on the land abruptly shifted. During this era of disease-driven mortality, genocide, incarceration, and forced labor of Indigenous peoples, American landscapes changed in fundamental ways, producing short-lived ecosystems that later became the basis of myths regarding the natural state of environments across the Americas.

Questioning Rebound explores the record and the causes of environmental change during the period following European contact, featuring case studies throughout the Americas. While both the record for and the apparent causes of the changes in the human footprint vary, the record of post- contact environmental change consistently reflects the impacts of past social upheaval.

“This book got its start when co-editor Jacob Fisher and I started talking about a pattern we'd both observed in our work with animal remains from archaeological sites that immediately post-date the arrival of Europeans to North America. We were both finding a ton of larger game animals like elk, deer, bighorn sheep, and pronghorn antelope in these assemblages. This was strange to both of us, because in assemblages for earlier time periods such animals are rare,” Jones explained.

Both Jones and Fisher had published on this phenomenon separately, Jones on the patterns as they appear in New Mexico, and Fisher in California.

“Both of us hypothesized that this pattern reflected what geographer William Denevan had previously termed "environmental rebound" − basically that, due to Indigenous mortality in the wake of the introduction of diseases such as smallpox and measles, there were fewer people out hunting and as a result, populations of these large game animals increased. But this hypothesis is one that really needed more data, from regions across the Americas, to test,” Jones said.

Jones and Fisher reached out to researchers from across the Americas: Anna Klimaszewski-Patterson of Sacramento State; Torben Rick at the Smithsonian; Chris Roos of Southern Methodist University; Elic Weitzel of the University of Connecticut; Christina Giovas of Simon Fraser University in Canada; Asia Alsgaard, who received her Ph.D. at UNM in Anthropology in 2022 and is currently at the University of Bergen in Norway; and a team in South America led by Gustavo Neme of the National Scientific and Technical Research Council in San Rafael, Argentina.

“Working together, we found two things that I think are really important,” Jones said. “First, a pattern of change suggesting a florescence of non-human animals and plants following European, or in some locations Russian, arrival seems to exist across the Americas. A big environmental change clearly did follow contact and colonization.”

“But, second and just as important, we think the evidence suggests a more complicated picture than simple environmental response to fewer people,” she continued. “The ‘rebound’ we see likely results from multiple causes, all tied to colonization − introduced disease, yes, but also other things tied to colonization, such as genocide, forced labor, and the introduction of new animals. This network of causes, we argue, produced short-lived, atypical environments across the Americas, ones that hadn't existed before and haven't been seen since.”

Jones contends that these kinds of short-lived environments challenge us to think more deeply about the human role in ecosystems globally − how our presence, or lack of presence, changes ecosystem function. They also challenge us to think about the impacts of social events, like colonization, on the environments around us.

“It's such a complex set of relationships!” she observed.

Jones is also faculty associate of the Latin American and Iberian Institute and Center for Stable Isotopes at UNM. She is the author of In Search of the Broad Spectrum Revolution in Paleolithic Southwest Europe. She studies past human-environment interactions through the lens of archaeological animal remains, with a particular interest in the connections between humans, non-human animals, and environmental change. New research by Jones that tests a hypothesis that prehistoric people who lived in El Mirón cave in what is now Spain 20,000 years ago created a partition or workbench where they crafted their bone tools, a rarity among examples of Paleolithic hunter-gatherer structures in caves, is due to be published this spring.

Fisher is also director of the Archaeological Curation Facility at California State University, Sacramento. His interests primarily lie in the role animal resources played in foraging-based societies with secondary research goals in conservation paleobiology and historical ecology.

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