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Plant species richness at archaeological sites suggests ecological legacy of Indigenous subsistence on the Colorado Plateau

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Bruce M. Pavlik, Lisbeth A Louderback, Kenneth B. Vernon, Peter M. Yaworsky, Cynthia Wilson, Arnold Clifford, and Brian F. Codding


Humans have both intentional and unintentional impacts on their environment, yet identifying the enduring ecological legacies of past small-scale societies remains difficult, and as such, evidence is sparse. The present study found evidence of an ecological legacy that persists today within an semiarid ecosystem of western North America. Specifically, the richness of ethnographically important plant species is strongly associated with archaeological complexity and ecological diversity at Puebloan sites in a region known as Bears Ears on the Colorado Plateau. A multivariate model including both environmental and archaeological predictors explains 88% of the variation in ethnographic species richness (ESR), with growing degree days and archaeological site complexity having the strongest effects. At least 31 plant species important to five tribal groups (Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, Ute Mountain Ute, and Apache), including the Four Corners potato (Solanum jamesii), goosefoot (Chenopodium sp.), wolfberry (Lycium pallidum), and sumac (Rhus trilobata), occurred at archaeological sites, despite being uncommon across the wider landscape. Our results reveal a clear ecological legacy of past human behavior: even when holding environmental variables constant, ESR increases significantly as a function of past investment in habitation and subsistence. Consequently, we suggest that propagules of some species were transported and cultivated, intentionally or not, establishing populations that persist to this day. Ensuring persistence will require tribal input for conserving and restoring archaeo-ecosystems containing “high-priority” plant species, especially those held sacred as lifeway medicines. This transdisciplinary approach has important implications for resource management planning, especially in areas such as Bears Ears that will experience greater visitation and associated impacts in the near future.

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Last Updated: 5/24/21