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Maori use of fire in New Zealand


 

Māori transformation of the New Zealand landscape through the use of fire

 
An understanding of prehistoric peoples and their influence on the environment is a central theme in geography and a topic of heated debate in North America.  In most parts of the world, assessment of landscape modification is complicated by the need for precise information on prehistoric activities, as well as a record of environmental change that can distinguish human impacts from natural ones.  This challenge is seldom met, because the debate over whether preEuropean landscapes were pristine or heavily modified is generally waged in places where human presence and environmental change have long joint histories.  New Zealand is a rare exception and affords an unparalleled opportunity to study (1) human transformation of a forested landscape in the absence of major climate change, and (2) the consequences of fire in an ecosystem that had not previously experienced burning.  Māori arrived and settled New Zealand in the 13th century, and soon thereafter reduced the original closed forest cover by nearly 40%.  This event is one of the most rapid and complete landscape conversions recorded anywhere in the world.
 
The paradox of Māori settlement and widespread forest clearance
 
 
The clearance by fire of between one third and one half of the forested New Zealand landscape within a few hundred years of Māori settlement was one of the most spectacular pre-industrial ecological transformations anywhere in the world. It was unique in the speed and completeness with which the landscape was converted from dense forest to open grassland, fern and scrub. Paradoxically, the extent to which forest was removed shows no broad-scale relationship with human population density. Our results will provide the first detailed look at how fire frequency changed between initial settlement and later prehistory, and in those crucial few decades after first European contact when Māori rapidly adjusted traditional ways to a myriad of new influences.