Lacking Farms, California Natives Ate Up Wild Bird Species
Lacking farms to grow food, California’s native Indians hunted its wild bird species nearly to extinction.
When the first white pioneers settled California in the early 1800s, they found the San Francisco Bay area teeming with geese, ducks, shore birds, deer and elk. One early settler said “The wild geese and every species of water fowl darkened the surface of every bay…in flocks of millions.”
This wildlife abundance seemed to endorse the legend that native Indians lived in supportive harmony with the wild birds and animals, harvesting only what their small communities needed to subsist. That legend has spread guilt among modern Americans whose food comes from crop fields that were once wildlife habitat.
A painstaking California archeologist has now blown the Indian conservation legend into tiny fragments. Over seven years, he analyzed 5,700 bird bones from a huge Indian shell/waste mound on the shores of San Francisco Bay. The bones laid out a 1900-year history of the Indians’ bird hunting. They’d hunted dozens of wild bird species to local extinction, starting with the biggest geese and working their way clear down to tiny sandpipers.
Archeologist Jack Broughton, a native Californian, says he found the bones of 64 different bird species, mostly waterbirds, but also quail and even eagles. The Bay Indians raided the island breeding colonies of cormorants, and caught the sea ducks floating far from shore.
The early European settlers found birds in abundance, says Broughton, only because Spanish explorers had inadvertently brought such epidemic diseases as smallpox and measles, starting about 1500 AD. The shell mound shows that the Indian population crashed by 90 percent, and the Bay area bird populations then recovered.
The Emeryville shell mound, 30 feet high and 900 feet long, was eventually cleared to build a paint factory. Before that, however, scientists in the early 1900s had excavated thousands of bones from the mound, recording the layer in which each was found—and thus when it was hunted. These bones and records have been stored in the Hearst Museum at the University of California, Berkeley.
Broughton painstakingly identified the species of each bone, thus creating a 1900-year pattern of San Francisco Indian bird hunting. He has also researched the impact of the Indian communities on other species, including such fish as sturgeon, and mammals such as elk and deer. He concluded that “anything big and juicy” suffered major population losses at the hands of the Stone Age hunters.
Broughton’s paper on bird bones was recently published in Ornithological Monographs.
Worldwide, populations of primitive humans expanded to use up all of the available food supply. The American Indians certainly wanted to preserve their wildlife, and they talked, sang and danced about doing it. But if clan A didn’t kill the geese, clan B would. Then clan B would get bigger, and push out clan A completely.
Only in the modern era of high-tech farming, has the world seen the current pattern: increasing food production per capita and per acre, while the increasing food security leads to lower birth rates.
Today, California can once again afford large bird populations, not because of smallpox deaths but because of high-yield farming. Instead of depending primarily on hunting, the European settlers grew grain. Over the years their grain yields have increased tenfold with better plant breeding, fertilizers and integrated pest management.
The biggest U.S. land use change since 1900 has been from poor cropland back to forest and wildlife preserves—because we were getting higher yields on the better lands.
In addition to praising the American Indians’ conservation ethic, we should also be proud of our own. We should also be praising the farmers, researchers and agribusinessmen who have finally enabled humanity to achieve wildlands conservation through high-yield food production.
Dennis T. Avery is a senior fellow for Hudson Institute in Washington, DC and the Director for Global Food Issues. He was formerly a senior analyst for the Department of State. Readers may write him at Post Office Box 202, Churchville, VA 24421.