Nataraja: India’s Cycle of Fire

Stephen J. Pyne. 1994. Nataraja: India’s Cycle of Fire. Environmental History Review, Vol. 18, No. 3 (Autumn, 1994), pp. 1-20.

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Selected excerpts:

In the center dances Shiva, a drum in one hand and a torch in the other, while all around flames inscribe an endless cycle of fire.

This-the nataraja, the Lord of the Dance-is more than one of Hinduism’s favored icons. It is a near-perfect symbol of Indian fire history. The drum represents the rhythm of life; the torch, death; the wheel of flame, the mandala of birth, death, and rebirth that fire epitomizes and makes possible. In this confrontation of opposites the dance replaces the dialectic; Shiva holds, not reconciles, both drum and torch. Considered ecologically the nataraja thus expresses in graphic language the great polarity of India, the annual alternation of wet and dry seasons by which the monsoon, with faint transition, imposes its opposing principles on the subcontinent.

India’s biota, like Shiva, dances to their peculiar rhythm while fire turns the timeless wheel of the world. Perhaps nowhere else have the natural and the cultural parameters of fire converged so closely and so clearly. Human society and Indian biota resemble one other with uncanny fidelity. They share common origins, display a similar syncretism, organize themselves along related principles. Such has been their interaction over millennia that the geography of one reveals the geography of the other. The mosaic of peoples is interdependent with the mosaic of landscapes, not only as a reflection of those lands but as an active shaper of them (emphasis added). Indian geography is thus an expression of Indian history, but that history has a distinctive character, of which the nataraja is synecdoche, a timeless cycle that begins and ends with fire.

The cycle originated with the passage of India as a fragment of Gondwana into a violent merger with Eurasia. The journey northward, through the fiery tropics; the violence of the great Deccan basalt flows and of the immense collision with Asia; the installment of seasonality in the form of the monsoon-all this purged the subcontinent of much of its Gondwana biota, and tempered the rest to drought and fire. The populating of India came instead by influx from outside lands, followed by varying degrees of assimilation. Here, in the choreography of the nataraja, east met west, Eurasia confronted Gondwana, wet paired with dry, life danced with death.

What endemics remained were, like India’s tribal peoples, scattered or crowded into hilly enclaves. Only 6.5% of India’s flowering plants are endemic, compared with 85% in Madagascar and 60% in Australia. The residual biota thrived most fully to the south; Peninsular India holds a third of the subcontinent’s endemic flora. Some species, Asian in character, entered from the northeast. A diffuse array emigrated from the eastern Mediterranean, the steppes, and even Siberia, the Himalayas serving less as a barrier than a corridor. More recently weeds, largely European, have established themselves. The composition of its biota thus recapitulates the composition of its human population-the tribal peoples, their origins obscured; the Dravidians who persevered on the Deccan plateau and to the south; the Southeast Asians, migrating through Assam and Bengal; the Aryans, Huns, Turks, Persians, Pathans, Mongols, and others, entering from the northwest; and Arabs and Europeans, mostly Portuguese and British, arriving by sea.

The geographic ensemble that emerged from this vast convergence was both familiar and unique. Of course there were broad divisions, Asians here, Dravidians here. Of course there were mosaics of field, grassland, and forest, in part because of human influence. But even beyond such matters, this syncretic biota assumed the character of something like a caste society. It is probable that this was no accident. The organization of Indian society impressed itself on the land, with ever greater force and intricacy. Tribal people gathered into disease-ridden hills, better shielded genetically from malaria and other ills. They then reworked those hills in ways that conferred on them a biotic identity. It is no accident that the species most commonly found in habited areas are those most abundantly exploited by the human inhabitants, and are often those best adapted to fire. European weeds, like forts and factories, gathered into specially disturbed sites, then spread along corridors of travel or secondary disturbance. The intricate division of Indian society by caste ensured that different peoples did particular things at particular times, and this was reflected in the landscape of India, not only between regions but within areas that different groups exploited at different times in different ways for different purposes.

The intensity of the monsoon assured-demanded-a place for fire. The sharper the gradient, the more vigorous the potential for burning. Some of the wettest places on Earth, like the Shillong Hills, could paradoxically experience fire and even fire-degraded landscapes. The biota, already adapted to rough handling by India’s passage north, responded to fire readily. The flora and fauna that humans introduced, or that migrated into India coincidental with them, also had to be fire-hardened because humans added to and often dominated the spectrum of environmental disturbances and they certainly exploited fire. Explorers and ethnographers reported the practice among southern tribal groups (and in the Andaman Islands) of habitually carrying firesticks, a practice relatively rare outside of Australia and a few other regions. Probably Radcliffe-Brown’s peroration on fire and the Andaman Islanders could stand for most tribal peoples on the subcontinent. Fire, he concluded,

… may be said to be the one object on which the society most of all depends for its well-being. It provides warmth on cold nights; it is the means whereby they prepare their food, for they eat nothing raw save a few fruits; it is a possession that has to be constantly guarded, for they have no means of producing it, and must therefore take care to keep it always alight; it is the first thing they think of carrying with them when they go on a journey by land or sea; it is the centre around which the social life moves, the family hearth being the centre of the family life, while the communal cooking place is the centre round which the men often gather after the day’s hunting is over. To the mind of the Andaman Islander, therefor, the social life of which his own life is a fragment, the social well-being which is the source of his own happiness, depend upon the possession of fire, without which the society could not exist. In this way it comes about that his dependence on the society appears in his consciousness as a sense of dependence upon fire and a belief that it possesses power to protect him from dangers of all kinds.

The belief in the protective power of fire is very strong. A man would never move even a few yards out of camp at night without a firestick. More than any other object fire is believed to keep away the spirits that cause disease and death. …

22 Nov 2010, 12:01pm
Cultural Landscapes Fire History
by admin
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The Columbian Encounter and the Little Ice Age: Abrupt Land Use Change, Fire, and Greenhouse Forcing

Robert A. Dull, Richard J. Nevle, William I. Woods, Dennis K. Bird, Shiri Avnery, and William M. Denevan. 2010. The Columbian Encounter and the Little Ice Age: Abrupt Land Use Change, Fire, and Greenhouse Forcing. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 100(4) 2010, pp. 1–17.

Full text [here]

Selected excerpts:


Pre-Columbian farmers of the Neotropical lowlands numbered an estimated 25 million by 1492, with at least 80 percent living within forest biomes. It is now well established that significant areas of Neotropical forests were cleared and burned to facilitate agricultural activities before the arrival of Europeans. Paleoecological and archaeological evidence shows that demographic pressure on forest resources—facilitated by anthropogenic burning—increased steadily throughout the Late Holocene, peaking when Europeans arrived in the late fifteenth century. The introduction of Old World diseases led to recurrent epidemics and resulted in an unprecedented population crash throughout the Neotropics. The rapid demographic collapse was mostly complete by 1650, by which time it is estimated that about 95 percent of all indigenous inhabitants of the region had perished. We review fire history records from throughout the Neotropical lowlands and report new high-resolution charcoal records and demographic estimates that together support the idea that the Neotropical lowlands went from being a net source of CO2 to the atmosphere before Columbus to a net carbon sink for several centuries following the Columbian encounter. We argue that the regrowth of Neotropical forests following the Columbian encounter led to terrestrial biospheric carbon sequestration on the order of 2 to 5 Pg C, thereby contributing to the well-documented decrease in atmospheric CO2 recorded in Antarctic ice cores from about 1500 through 1750, a trend previously attributed exclusively to decreases in solar irradiance and an increase in global volcanic activity. We conclude that the post-Columbian carbon sequestration event was a significant forcing mechanism.


… Widespread biomass burning and agricultural forest clearance predate the Industrial Revolution by several millennia in the Americas, Africa, Asia, Europe, and Australia, as well as on many oceanic islands (Sauer 1958; Crutzen and Andreae 1990; Goldhammer 1991; Chew 2001; Saarnak 2001; Williams 2003). The idea that preindustrial Holocene land use could have produced quantities of atmospheric CO2 and CH4 sufficient to impact the climate system was first outlined by Ruddiman’s (2003) seminal paper, “The Anthropogenic Greenhouse Era Began Thousands of Years Ago.” Although evidence mounts for a preindustrial Anthropocene (Ruddiman 2003, 2005, 2007; Faust et al. 2006; van Hoof et al. 2006; Nevle and Bird 2008; van Hoof et al. 2008; Vavrus, Ruddiman, and Kutzbach 2008), some critics maintain that human impacts in terms of climate forcing were negligible until the nineteenth century (Broecker and Stocker 2006; Olofsson and Hickler 2008; Elsig et al. 2009; Stocker, Strassmann, and Joos 2010).

If pre-industrial farmers did contribute measurably to the greenhouse effect via increased emissions of CO2 and methane, only a massive and catastrophic collapse of agricultural populations could have led to significant decreases in anthropogenic emissions at any time. The post-Columbian encounter epidemics and pandemics were certainly the most rapid, thorough, and widespread to have occurred during the late Holocene (Crosby 1972; Lovell 1992), resulting in a loss of approximately 90 to 95 percent of the agricultural population throughout the Neotropics (Dobyns 1966; Lovell and Lutz 1995). The sixteenth- and seventeenth-century epidemics resulted in the abrupt abandonment of agricultural clearings in otherwise forested landscapes together with an unprecedented reduction in human fire ignitions, thus providing an ideal scenario for backcasting anthropogenic climate forcing before European contact. The widespread forest recovery that followed the native population crash after the Columbian encounter resulted in elevated biospheric sequestration of atmospheric CO2 in plant biomass because (1) forests rapidly reoccupied abandoned cultivated landscapes via secondary succession, and (2) existing forests became more carbon dense due to a reduction in wildfires related to anthropogenic fire ignitions, both intentional and accidental.

In this article we review the evidence for prehistoric anthropogenic biomass burning in the Neotropics and provide new data supporting the thesis that the aggregate carbon footprint of Neotropical farmers was sufficient to raise global temperatures via greenhouse forcing before the Columbian encounter. Furthermore, we argue that Little Ice Age (LIA) cooling and the attendant atmospheric CO2 decrease can be explained in part by biospheric carbon sequestration following the native population collapse. The LIA is identified in surface temperature reconstructions of the past millennium as a global thermal anomaly of about -0.1 deg C in which cooling was most pronounced from 1550 to 1750 AD in the Northern Hemisphere, particularly in northern Europe (Esper, Cook, and Schweingruber 2002; Jones and Mann 2004; Moberg et al. 2005). Atmospheric CO2 concentration decreased by ~7 ppm during the same period (Meure et al. 2006). Previously, the LIA thermal anomaly and concomitant decrease in atmospheric CO2 concentrations were attributed to solar–volcanic forcing (Joos et al. 1999; Hunt and Elliott 2002; Von Storch et al. 2004). Recent analyses, however, suggest that variations in solar luminosity are insufficient to drive significant climate variations on centennial to millennial timescales (Foukal et al. 2006), and were likely a negligible climate forcing factor at the onset of the LIA (Ammann et al. 2007). We conclude that the fifteenth- and sixteenth-century arrivals of Europeans in the Americas set into motion an unprecedented anthropogenic carbon sequestration event and contributed to the LIA climate anomaly. This event represents perhaps the best example of anthropogenic influence on Earth’s climate system during the pre-industrial period. …

Pre-Columbian agricultural landscapes, ecosystem engineers, and self-organized patchiness in Amazonia

Doyle McKey, Stephen Rostain, Jose Iriarte, Bruno Glaser, Jago Jonathan Birk, Irene Holst, Delphine Renard. 2010. Pre-Columbian agricultural landscapes, ecosystem engineers, and self-organized patchiness in Amazonia. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 107(17):7823-8.

Full text [here]


The scale and nature of pre-Columbian human impacts in Amazonia are currently hotly debated. Whereas pre-Columbian people dramatically changed the distribution and abundance of species and habitats in some parts of Amazonia, their impact in other parts is less clear. Pioneer research asked whether their effects reached even further, changing how ecosystems function, but few in-depth studies have examined mechanisms underpinning the resilience of these modifications.

Combining archeology, archeobotany, paleoecology, soil science, ecology, and aerial imagery, we show that pre-Columbian farmers of the Guianas coast constructed large raised-field complexes, growing on them crops including maize, manioc, and squash. Farmers created physical and biogeochemical heterogeneity in flat, marshy environments by constructing raised fields. When these fields were later abandoned, the mosaic of well-drained islands in the flooded matrix set in motion self-organizing processes driven by ecosystem engineers (ants, termites, earthworms, and woody plants) that occur preferentially on abandoned raised fields.

Today, feedbacks generated by these ecosystem engineers maintain the human-initiated concentration of resources in these structures. Engineer organisms transport materials to abandoned raised fields and modify the structure and composition of their soils, reducing erodibility. The profound alteration of ecosystem functioning in these landscapes coconstructed by humans and nature has important implications for understanding Amazonian history and biodiversity. Furthermore, these landscapes show how sustainability of food-production systems can be enhanced by engineering into them fallows that maintain ecosystem services and biodiversity. Like anthropogenic dark earths in forested Amazonia, these self-organizing ecosystems illustrate the ecological complexity of the legacy of pre-Columbian land use.

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