Human Nature

, Volume 5, Issue 4, pp 359–398 | Cite as

Aboriginal overkill

The role of Native Americans in structuring western ecosystems
  • Charles E. Kay


Prior to European influence, predation by Native Americans was the major factor limiting the numbers and distribution of ungulates in the Intermountain West. This hypothesis is based on analyses of (1) the efficiency of Native American predation, including cooperative hunting, use of dogs, food storage, use of nonungulate foods, and hunting methods; (2) optimal-foraging studies; (3) tribal territory boundary zones as prey reservoirs; (4) species ratios, and sex and age of aboriginal ungulate kills; (5) impact of European diseases on aboriginal populations; and (6) synergism between aboriginal and carnivore predation. Native Americans had no effective conservation practices, and the manner in which they harvested ungulates was the exact opposite of any predicted conservation strategy. Native Americans acted in ways that maximized their individual fitness regardless of the impact on the environment. For humans, conservation is seldom an evolutionarily stable strategy. By limiting ungulate numbers and purposefully modifying the vegetation with fire, Native Americans structured entire plant and animal communities. Because ecosystems with native peoples are entirely different than those lacking aboriginal populations, a “hands-off” or “natural regulation” approach by today’s land managers will not duplicate the ecological conditions under which those ecosystems developed. The modern concept of wilderness as areas without human influence is a myth. North America was not a “wilderness” waiting to be discovered, instead it was home to tens of millions of aboriginal peoples before European-introduced diseases decimated their numbers.

Key words

Aboriginal overkill Aboriginal subsistence Aboriginal conservation Ungulate ecology Yellowstone National Park (Wyoming) Precolumbian ecosystems Predation Predatorprey ecology Native Americans Ecosystem management 


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Copyright information

© Walter de Gruyter, Inc 1994

Authors and Affiliations

  • Charles E. Kay
    • 1
  1. 1.Institute of Political EconomyUtah State UniversityLogan

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