"Food Fires:" Initial Estimates of the Yield and Sustainability of Ruderal Production by Anthropogenic Burning

Date and Time: 
Thursday, 17 March, 2016 - 09:30
, Philip - University of Kentucky
, Alan - University of Cincinnati

Archaeological investigations of the effects of anthropogenic fire on the livelihoods of small-scale societies, particularly those of the prehispanic northern Southwest, are embryonic in scope and disciplinary impact. In this contribution, we present the first results of our efforts to estimate the yields of ruderals -- economically important plants that thrive in disturbed areas -- that accompany anthropogenic burning. With data from the Upper Basin (northern Arizona), we show that, in an area that is environmentally hostile to corn production, significant populations could be supported with “food fires” -- low-intensity understory burns that promoted ruderal production in pinyon-juniper ecosystems (the remains of these plants dominate the area’s archaeobotanical and pollen assemblages). This first approximation is intended to illustrate that fire-reliant ruderal agriculture, in contrast to maize agriculture, was a sustainable and ecologically-sound practice that not only increased food-supply security but insulated populations from long-term climatic variability and short-term environmental uncertainty.