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Anthropogenic Landscapes: The Idea of PLACES

By Guest Observer September 30, 2015

The authors of the following article live along the banks of the Nanticoke River near Seaford, Delaware. After working for forty years in field archaeology, they have turned their attention to analyzing existing landscape features, such as clusters of specific plants and animals, found at or near archaeological habitation sites. In the following article they theorize that by arranging these features into anthropogenic landscapes, ancestral Native Americans had developed new types of economic systems. Through managing nut groves, fruit orchards, and berry patches, utility and medicinal gardens for examples, close to their home-base residences, Native Americans were able to successfully and sustainably manipulate their environments, ensuring predictable yield, while decreasing effort and distance traveled to desired resources


Anthropogenic Landscapes and the idea of PLACES

Chinquapin  Credit: Glen Mellin

Credit: Glen Mellin

Why do we continue to struggle with the abrupt division between Hunter/Gatherer and Horticulture/Agriculture Native American economic programs? Antediluvian definitions ascribed to the catch-as-catch-can Hunter/Gatherer economic program and the genetically modified domesticates Horticulture/Agriculture economic program may provide reason enough to discourage the progressive thinking needed to explore concepts like Cultural Landscapes, and more recently, Anthropogenic Landscapes.

Unfortunately, our national narratives, often written into history and law, describe unoccupied natural landscapes; expanses of forest, unbroken plains and waters, as virtually free for the taking. There is little wonder why jingoistic eyes fail to see how Native Americans altered and improved their living environments by employing creative cultural solutions that sustainably transformed few into many. This essay illustrates a sampling of the many ancestral Native American landscapes that were established between the Hunter/Gatherer and Horticulture/Agriculture economic programs.

Making this essay easier for pragmatists to support, we elected not to tinker with the accepted “third rail” definitions of the Hunter/Gatherer and Horticulture/Agriculture economic programs at all—we simply pried those two programs apart and inserted our concept of Public Landscaping—Agroforestry—and Creating Economic Strategies, or PLACES, in the following manner:

Hunter/Gatherer  – PLACES  – Horticulture/Agriculture

Let’s take a look inside PLACES and see how our model identifies and organizes cultural solutions to environmental deficiencies in the following three categories.

1) Public Landscaping—involves the organized manipulation of environmental settings (upland, wetland, tidal, and seascapes) to encourage and maintain desired species of plants and animals and discourage undesired species.

2) Agroforestry—involves selective burning, ringing, and bark stripping to reduce specific species profiles, while planting and transplanting native species and acquiring adventive species that increased desirable species profiles. These manufactured groupings, or clusters of beneficial plants and animals developed local landscapes into an array of concentrated and efficiently retrievable stores. Through the arrangement of nut, fruit, berry, grape, and vegetables as edible gardens; the arrangement of bark, twine fiber, and basket making materials as utility gardens; and the arrangement of wellbeing species like cohosh, jimson weed, and prickly pear as medicinal gardens for examples, these and other prepared landscapes were likely developed as visionary templates of ancestral Native American world views.

3) Creating Economic Strategies—involves the conception and manufacture of sustainable beneficial anthropogenic landscapes as economic programs. Briefly, lets differentiate between the “active agency” (designed for prosperity) and the “idea agency” (designed for posterity). Active agency involves the organized construction and maintenance of groves, orchards, and gardens within woods, meadows, and seascapes that promoted the growth and accumulation of beneficial resource where and when they were desired. Idea agency involves kincentric responsibilities, or the “consequences” of achievement. Inheritance, trade and exchange, feasting, and mortuary practices are some examples of the ideaology of excess, or the consumption of affluence and the symbolic storage of wealth. Together, these agencies seem to greatly intensify local mobility through accumulation, while offering periodic extensive mobility through trade and exchange.

Publically available surveys found verify that ancestral Native American cultural landscapes, or PLACES, are typically found within one to seven miles’ radius from the core areas of larger basecamps and villages. Any detailed Ethnoecological survey encompassing fifty square miles surrounding these large base camps and villages should be sufficient to identify the types, characters, and locations of whatever cultural landscapes had been manufactured and maintained in the distant past. However, we need to be aware that development, agriculture, erosion, the proliferation of non-native species, and diseases are the principal destroyers of these PLACES.

The results of our recent Ethnoecological surveys (2013—2015) here in Delaware are very consistent with the information provided above. Thus far, our largest identified botanical cluster is a six-mile wide American Chestnut (Castanea dentata) circular nut-grove encompassing Kuskarawack Towne, a Native village documented by Captain John Smith (ca. 1608), along the banks of the upper Nanticoke River. After all these years, many of those planted Chestnut trees are still alive. We documented as many individual remaining trees as we could find using GPS readings (Mellin and Truitt, 2015).

We now know that many PLACES remain as significant cultural resources because we have found evidence that can only be described as cultural in origin. Recently, a number of other researchers have corroborated our interpretations. For example, Tulowiecki and Larsen (2015) described Ethnobotanical data for an entire county in western New York. Using sophisticated statistical analysis, they demonstrated meaningful differences in proportion for beneficial tree species in association with known Iroquois villages. How did they do that? They found that late eighteenth and early nineteenth century geographic grid system land surveys had itemized tree species along lines and axis points in Chautauqua County, NY. When the authors plotted these species, they found significant differences in proportion between beneficial (edible) species and non-beneficial (non-edible) species out to 10 to 15 km from Iroquois village sites. The authors attributed this phenomenon to pre-settlement “forest compositional modification” through persistent large-scale landscape burning (2015:3). Additionally, their analysis stipulates that Walnut and Butternut groves were found close to the villages and American Chestnut, Hickory, and Oak groves clustered further afield. We find it difficult to understand how their assumption of landscape burning could create and maintain groves of specific species without additional forms of cultural selection having been in play. Addressing their data within our model of PLACES provides opportunities for more thorough and more meaningful interpretations of both the anthropogenic landscapes and the world views of the people who created them.

Anthropogenic landscapes, like the ones Tulowiecki and Larsen found, continued on through the Colonial Period. Many of them are observable today, at least the ones that have not been erased by modern processes. For example, we found a distressed two-acre Chinquapin (Castanea pumila) tree cluster that contained about two hundred coppiced trees (coppicing is the result of an Asian bark fungus). We found Native ceramic shards and clamshell within that tree cluster, which indicates a ancestry or age of origin approximately 1,500 BP. Castanea roots are known to live for 1,600 years, so, together with any original (Native planted) trees and their descendant offspring (still growing in the very definable oval cluster), this cluster epitomizes what a small, relict Native American Chinquapin nut grove would look like today (Mellin and Truitt, 2013c). Since we (the authors) subsequently rescued that Chinquapin cluster (we bought it and restored it), we have become actors in our own archaeological narrative by rescuing and restoring the trees and subsequently eating the nuts. Essentially, this Chinquapin cluster exhibits continuity—it has quite remarkably retained its sustainability. But sadly, its original Native meaning has been lost, or at least temporarily misplaced.

This is by no means a unique story. For example, we documented the fifteen-acre ancestral Native American Pawpaw fruit orchard cluster in Alapocos State Park near Wilmington, Delaware (Mellin and Truitt 2013b). In addition to the popular hiking trails, the principal program at the park is the yearly Pawpaw festival where participants may compete by baking edible deserts. Here too, the State of Delaware as well as the park’s participants are actors in our archaeological investigation and narrative.

Where few original trees remain, Dendrochronology is usually not a dating option. However, determining the ancestry of these PLACES may be estimated using various forms of archaeological association. The age of carbon, animal bone, and shellfish remains found in or on candidate landscapes can be estimated using either carbon dating, direct association, or strata sequencing. These dating procedures can be applied to some of the found specimens in the first two of our three artifact categories (Mellin and Truitt, 2013a): (1) Archaeobotanical evidence consisting mainly of carbonized wood and seeds, and pollen, and phytoliths, and recently, starch grain identification shows promise, and (2) Traditional Plant Artifact evidence is usually preserved in either saturated or dehydrated environments. The above dating methods may be used to estimate the antiquity of each specimen tested, and by relationship, or association, offer an estimated ancestry of nearby PLACES. But, how can we address the ancestry of living artifact plants? (3) Living Artifact Plants are the actual plants, or the descendants of plants that were originally arranged in PLACES. We typically find these plants arranged in clusters within definable or candidate cultural or anthropogenic landscapes.

These plants may include native plant species whose original location or quantity have been altered (citing high bush blueberry as an example) and all of the adventive species that arrived in Delaware during the Holocene (citing jimson weed as an example). In Delaware, we suspect there are even now a couple of dozen plant species assumed to be native that probably are actually adventive (citing prickly pear as an example).

While it has been thought that the ancestry or age of things like plant and animal clusters are un-dateable, thus, the origin of cultural processes like PLACES are un-dateable. Nevertheless, viewing evidence of these PLACES in association with dateable cultural contexts may provide avenues for “relationship precocity” or “origination brackets”. Certainly, the origin of PLACES and the various elements of plant and animal arrangements, or the things that make up processes like PLACES did not occur evenly across the landscape or all at the same time.

Culturally Modified Soils (CMS) are a result of conditioning through previous cultural activities. Where found, CMS may have profound implications, especially at locations where no subsurface artifacts are located. These forms of soils may contain elevated amounts of carbon and organic material, reduced acidity, altered profile depths, as well as increased archaeoecological remains both within soil pit features and scattered throughout various layers of the local ancestral landscapes. For example, an area of culturally modified soil may exhibit use as a hickory nut grove during the Later Archaic Period, as well as exhibiting use as a chestnut grove or blueberry patch during the Late Woodland Period.

Where datable artifacts are present, we have telltale signs of ancestry. But that doesn’t necessarily make our job easier. Any evidence of anthropogenic landscapes created in the distant past has probably been modified by the efforts of successive landscape modifications and by natural processes through time. At this point in time, we see no reliable association between the formation of PLACES and the Bifurcated tool tradition. We do see associations between PLACES and the technological development of the “Broadpoint” tool type, or as some have referred to these bifacial tool types as “pocket chainsaws”, or the “Swiss Army Knife” of the era. We think the ideological invention and use of these tool types was centered on Agroforestry. With the ringing of trees, the stripping of bark, and the processing of forest products, these tools, along with large cores and axes were likely the quintessential Agroforestry toolkit. The presence of these tools likely indicates economic activities such as landscape burning and the construction of browse lots, monoculture woodlots, gardens, groves, and orchards. Within this timeframe, we also see larger and more durable activity areas with large pits dug into the ground. Collectively, we see in these fragments of people’s worldviews from the distant past that these folks had developed a durable sense of place supported through the construction of desired environmental landscapes, or PLACES, close to home.

The reality of PLACES may produce contradictions—but not necessarily conflicts, within our long-held professional principles. Examples of ancestral Native American sustainable anthropogenic landscapes, or PLACES, are all around us. They still exist as living artifacts, artifacts with DNA, they still function as parts and parcels within our contemporary landscapes. These remaining objects (the individual plants and animals) grouped together as remaining things (the clusters and gardens) fit together into larger processes (the traditional land and management areas) are built into systems (economic programs). We walk through these PLACES on a daily basis—they are here, now! We are adding our footprints to footprints laid down in the distant past—along similar paths, solving similar problems.

Works Cited:

Mellin, Glen, and Lenny Truitt.

2015 February. “Ethnoecological Survey of Kuskarawack Towne on the Nanticoke River, Delaware.” Mellin and Truitt. Keywords: Native American, Captain John Smith, American Beech, American Chestnut, Arrow Arum, Bald Cypress, Box Huckleberry, Christmas Fern, Crowsfoot, Highbush Blueberry, Pecan, Prickly Pear Cactus, Seaside Alder, Shadbush, Yucca, Castanea Circle. Available on request at:

2014 December. “The Clam Gardens on Pot Hook Creek (South of Cape Henlopen, Delaware).” Mellin and Truitt. Keywords: Native American, Jimson Weed, Japanese Wineberry, Skunk Cabbage, Clam Quahog. Available on request at:

2013a November. Transformation of Native American and Historic Botanicals. Mellin and Truitt. Keywords: Native American, Natural, Naturalized, and Adventive Plants, Archaeobotanical, Traditional, and Living Artifacts. Available on request at:

2013b October. “Pawpaw Clusters Evaluated in Alapocas Run and Brandywine Creek State Parks.” Mellin and Truitt. Keywords: Native American, American Wild Crabapple, Black Walnut, Elderberry, Mountain Laurel, Pawpaw, Sycamore, Yellow Poplar. Available on request at: See also

2013c January. “Box Huckleberry and Chinquapin Clusters: Ancestral Native Plantations?” Mellin and Truitt. Keywords: Native American, Box Huckleberry, Chinquapin, American Chestnut. Available on request at:

Tulowiecki, S. J., and C. P. S. Larsen.

  1. “Native American Impacts on Past Forest Composition Inferred From Species Distribution Models, Chautauqua County, NY.” Department of Geography, University of Buffalo, Wilkerson Quadrangle, Buffalo, NY 14261. Preprint, Ecological Society of America.

By Glen Mellin & Lenny Truitt


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