Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Stone Age Forestry

I am reading a book published in 2003 by Nigel Randell titled ‘The White Headhunter” about a British sailor marooned on the island of Malaita in the Solomons for eight years ending in the early 1870’s. The society he entered and impacted was Stone Age, well organized and remarkably similar to the society of pre Columbian Brazil including the ritual sacrifice of enslaved captives. This book informs us of the lifeways of these societies and their stresses rather well. It is not the eyes of a trained anthropologist but of a captive who needed to make himself valuable to the tribe and having little hope of escape.

Most valuable, we get a report on the felling of a tree, using Stone Age technique. This had been discussed by those debating the origins of terra preta soils in the Amazon. Manu had expected that the carbon had come from the reduction of the forest itself. I had argued that Stone Age technology lacked the necessary productivity, but had no referents to support that position, unless common sense can be scientifically quoted. It is noteworthy, however, that once the steel ax became available that bush natives switched immediately to slash and burn agriculture.

I quote as follows;

“Bush life was shaped around the wrestling of subsistence from the land. Families depended upon a continuing harvest of starchy food with the staple diet consisting of taro, with yams providing a seasonal change. Gardening was exhausting labour as the land had to be cleared. The bases of the huge hardwood trees were burned and stone adzes used to chip away at the charred wood. This process of burning and chipping was slow work; each tree would take four days to fell. The cleared land could only be used for one planting, then left to lie fallow to renew the feeble fertility of the soil. There was little in the forest to supplement their diet except tree grubs, frogs, and lizards. What bush people always craved was fish.”

The advent of terra preta soil culture in exactly this type of tropical subsistence environment was a productivity revolution. The use of biomass, and more specifically the use of maize stover as a biochar feedstock, provide sufficient product to immediately plant a successor crop using the three sisters protocol or even just more corn. Two days work would surely gather the stover and generate the necessary earthen kiln in the garden patch. Obviously such a bush tribe would base themselves close to good fishing and a lot of fish waste would also accumulate.

This quote clearly establishes the forest management limits of a Stone Age society and shows us that the use of wood for charcoaling was massively labour intensive and not a practical option.

It is also noteworthy that the best Stone Age adze technology of the North West Indians allowed fairly modest totem pole work. It was only the advent of the steel ax that allowed the art to blossom into today’s forms and size.

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