Research article

Landscape Ecology

, Volume 29, Issue 6, pp 979-987

First online:

Ancient experiments: forest biodiversity and soil nutrients enhanced by Native American middens

  • Susan C. Cook-PattonAffiliated withSmithsonian Environmental Research Center Email author 
  • , Daniel WellerAffiliated withCornell University
  • , Torben C. RickAffiliated withProgram in Human Ecology and Archaeobiology, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution
  • , John D. ParkerAffiliated withSmithsonian Environmental Research Center

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The legacy of ancient human practices can affect the diversity and structure of modern ecosystems. Here, we examined how prehistoric refuse dumps (“middens”) impacted soil chemistry and plant community composition in forests along the Chesapeake Bay by collecting vegetational and soil nutrient data. The centuries- to millennia-old shell middens had elevated soil nutrients compared to adjacent sites, greater vegetative cover, especially of herb and grass species, and higher species richness. Not only are middens important archaeological resources, they also offer a remarkable opportunity to test ecological hypotheses about nutrient addition over very long time scales. We found no evidence, for example, that elevated nutrients enhanced invasion by non-native species as predicted by the fluctuating resource hypothesis. However, we did find that elevated nutrients shifted community structure from woody species to herbaceous species, as predicted by the structural carbon-nutrient hypothesis. These results highlight the long-lasting effects that humans can have on abiotic and biotic properties of the natural environment, and suggest the potential for modern patterns of species’ distributions and abundances to reflect ancient human activities.


Land-use legacies Shell middens Crassostrea virginica Forest diversity Invasion Nutrient addition Calcium Chesapeake Bay, Maryland, USA