One of the topics that interests ISAS environmental archaeologist Michael Aiuvalasit is fire.
He was part of an interdisciplinary collaboration, led by Southern Methodist University anthropologist Christopher Roos, that examined how the ancestors of the Native American communities in the Jemez Mountains of northern New Mexico employed small, controlled fires to limit wildfires and improve forest resilience. The team of archaeologists, ecologists, and tribal communities documented centuries of fire management by Native American farmers in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Aiuvalasit has also done preliminary field projects looking at the role of Native Americans on fire management associated with the eastern tallgrass prairie here in Illinois. Through the end of February you can watch a video presentation on his work as part of the virtual Wild Things 2021 Conference.
Aiuvalasit recently answered a few questions about his research.
What drew you to wildfire as a research topic?
I didn’t know much about wildfire until I became involved in the research project on fire in New Mexico. I learned how fire is essential to the health of many ecosystems and that we know so little about how people used fire as a tool to manage landscapes in prehistory. I owe this interest to my Ph.D. advisor Chris Roos and the many fire scientists and land managers I worked with. I realized that Illinois would be a fascinating place to do this type of research because so many native ecosystems here were dependent upon fire, but were long ago turned into farmland. Looking to the past to understand how people and fire related to each other may prove to be essential for restoring our fire-dependent ecosystems.
You were part of the team that documented how Native Americans in New Mexico reduced wildfire risk with controlled burns. Are there lessons you think could be taken from these indigenous practices and applied to contemporary wildfire management?
The big takeaway is at its surface counterintuitive—in order to be resilient to the devastating impacts of wildfire, both communities and ecosystems need more fire. By setting lots of smaller fires and actively being stewards of woodlands, Native American communities not only prevented the large disastrous fires like those we are seeing out West today, but they also encouraged the expansion of the ponderosa pine forest. Also, through conducting interviews with tribal collaborators about the ways they use fire today, the anthropologists in the study identified more ways in which Native Americans use and value fire than they anticipated.
The lesson from this is that communities can live sustainably in fire dependent ecosystems for hundreds of years so long as fire is understood and valued. We need to be talking more about fire. We need to expand our thinking beyond wildfires being an issue only out West. We need to recognize that urban and suburban communities here in Illinois who want to have wild places in and near their communities will have to learn to live with more fire.
You’ve begun investigating the relationship between Native Americans and fires on the eastern tallgrass prairie. Tell us about the preliminary field projects you’ve done in this area.
The eastern tallgrass prairie is a fire-dependent ecosystem. The easternmost extension of it, known as the Prairie Peninsula, covered 60 percent of Illinois before it was nearly all plowed up for agriculture. How this ecosystem persisted through the millennia has confounded ecologists.
We know that grasslands colonized Central Illinois 8,000-5,000 years ago during a warm and dry climate period, but then grasslands endured through cooler and wetter climates over the last 3,000 years. This is perplexing. The grasslands should have converted to woodlands, as they do today in the absence of disturbances like fire or grazing. There is archaeological evidence that the ancestors of Native Americans began living in Illinois over 12,000 years ago. The persistence of a fire-dependent ecosystem in a place where some ecologists think there isn’t enough natural fire to support grasslands begs the question (at least for an archaeologist)—what about people? Ecologists have hypothesized that Native Americans played a part in local fire ecology, but no one has put together a study to test this.
I’ve begun two fire-related projects. First, before we can even begin to understand if, when, and how the ancestors of Native Americans influenced fire regimes of local grassland ecosystems we need a good proxy for fire to study. Charcoal found in layers of lake and river deposits allows us to identify the intensity and frequency of fires over thousands of years. The problem is that scientists have mostly studied charcoal produced by forest fires or grasslands of the Great Plains, and not the eastern tallgrass prairies. To get at this problem, I’m participating in prescribed burns with the Champaign County Forest Preserve. I collect charcoal from their fires, bring the samples back to the Environmental Archaeology Laboratory at ISAS, and quantify the charcoal produced by different types of fires.
The data will serve as a baseline for what I can expect in the archaeological and paleoecological records. I also completed the basics of Wildland Firefighter training, and I look forward to participating in more prescribed burns—to advance this research and just to help out. A drip torch is more fun to use than a trowel!
What’s the next step in your tallgrass prairie research?
The next step is to apply this knowledge to reconstruct a long-term coupled history of people and ancient fire regimes here in Illinois, and I think I’ve found the place to do it. In the mid-2000s a team that included UIUC researchers and Illinois State Geological Survey (ISGS) geologist Brandon Curry published a study that helped to define when the tallgrass prairies spread across our region. They put together a great paleoenvironmental record, but because they didn’t have an archaeologist on board, they left out people. It turns out that archaeological sites with artifacts spanning the last 10,000 years surround one of their study localities, Nelson Lake, which is protected by the Forest Preserve District of Kane County. I did some preliminary testing there last summer, and my goal is to secure grant funding to return to Nelson Lake to pair new archaeological investigations with paleoecological studies to understand the long-term relationship between people and fire in the tallgrass prairies.
You’ve mentioned in the past that environmental archaeology is very collaborative. Are there scientists from other disciplines involved in your tallgrass prairie work, or are there other scientists you would like to connect with for this work?
Since coming to the Prairie Research Institute (PRI) just over a year and a half ago I’ve been able to learn so much from scientists across PRI’s survey units. Ecologists at the Illinois Natural History Survey have shared their time and expertise with me, and we’ll see if Mark Davis can extend his environmental DNA work to look for ancient DNA from sediments of Nelson Lake. I also need to take up Jamie Ellis’ offer to help with prescribed burns on UI’s Natural Areas. Brandon Curry at ISGS has helped steer me toward paleoecological localities across Illinois and put me in contact with other researchers interested in the last 10,000 years of this state’s natural history. The Illinois Sustainable Technology Center has the expertise to apply cutting-edge applications of soil biochemistry to archaeological research, and the Illinois State Water Survey has been a gracious host of my Environmental Archaeology Lab. When the weather gets better, ISAS plans to take out one of their boats and crew to collect lake cores for us. I think it will be ISAS’s maiden voyage on a research vessel. Going forward, I can’t wait to attend local meetings and develop local collaborations with ecologists, fire scientists, tribal scientists from descendant communities, and land managers. These efforts have been hampered by COVID, which is real, so please wear a mask so that we can all get back to sciencing at 100 percent.