Like people everywhere, American Indians responded to incentives. For example, where land was abundant, it made sense to farm extensively and move on.
- It was common for Indians such as the Choctaw, Iroquois, and Pawnee to clear land for farming by cutting and burning forests. Once cleared, fields were farmed extensively until soil fertility was depleted; then they cleared new lands and started the process again.
- Wherever Indian populations were dense and farming was intense, deforestation was common. Indeed, the mysterious departure of the Anasazi from the canyons of southeastern Utah in the thirteenth century may have been due to depletion of wood supplies used for fuel.
Similarly, where wild game was plentiful, Indians used only the choicest cuts and left the rest. When buffalo were herded over cliffs, tons of meat were left to rot or to be eaten by scavengers.
Indians also manipulated the land to improve hunting. Upland wooded areas from east to west were burned to remove the undergrowth and increase forage for deer, elk, and bison. Indeed, because of this burning, there may have been fewer “old growth” forests in the Pacific Northwest when the first Europeans arrived than there are today.
The demand for meat, hides, and furs by relatively small, dispersed populations of Indians put little pressure on wildlife. But in some cases, game depletion resulted in the “tragedy of the commons.” This term, coined by biologist Garrett Hardin, describes what happens when no one has ownership of a resource and anyone has access to it.