Permanent vs. shifting cultivation in the eastern woodlands of North America prior to European contact
Document Type: Journal Article
Author(s): W. E. Doolittle
Publication Year: 2004

Cataloging Information

  • agriculture
  • Alabama
  • archaeological sites
  • Canada
  • char
  • community ecology
  • croplands
  • European settlement
  • floods
  • Georgia
  • grasses
  • hardwood forests
  • histories
  • Kentucky
  • land use
  • landscape ecology
  • livestock
  • New England
  • old fields
  • paleoecology
  • pine hardwood forests
  • presettlement vegetation
  • reforestation
  • roots
  • site treatments
  • slash and burn
  • soil erosion
  • soil nutrients
  • Tennessee
  • trees
Record Maintained By:
Record Last Modified: June 1, 2018
FRAMES Record Number: 42726
Tall Timbers Record Number: 17846
TTRS Location Status: In-file
TTRS Call Number: Fire File
TTRS Abstract Status: Okay, Fair use, Reproduced by permission

This bibliographic record was either created or modified by the Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy and is provided without charge to promote research and education in Fire Ecology. The E.V. Komarek Fire Ecology Database is the intellectual property of the Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy.


Native food production in the Eastern Woodlands of North America before, and at the time of, European contact has been described by several writers as 'slash-and-burn agriculture,' 'shifting cultivation,' amd even 'swidden.' Select quotes from various early explorers, such as John Smith of Pocahontas fame, have been used out of context to support this position. Solid archaeological evidence of such practices is next to nonexistent, as are ethnographic parallels from the region. In reality, the best data are documentary. Unlike previous assessments, this paper evaluates sixteenth and seventeenth century ethnohistorical references to anything that can be even remotely construed as supportive of previous claims. Analyzed as a group these sources reveal something completely different from what common knowledge would have us believe. References to the slashing, the burning, and the shifting of fields are reasonably abundant. Rarely, however, are all three activities mentioned in a single passage, or by one chronicler. Furthermore, subtleties often overlooked in these quotes reveal great insight into native practices. This paper assesses explorers' and early settlers' descriptions in the context of the larger body of literature dealing with the ecology of swidden agriculture today. Indigenous fields in the Eastern Woodlands tended to be large, numerous, contiguous, and cleared of roots and stumps. Fields previously cleared of trees were covered with grass prior to preparation for planting. They were permanently cultivated. This condition stands in marked contrast to present-day swidden fields in other parts of the world that tend to be small, few, scattered, partially cleared of trees, and cultivated for only a year or two before being abandoned. Slash-and-burn shifting cultivation became common only after European settlers introduced steel axes. It was then practiced on uplands, not the formerly cultivated floodplains that were usurped by interlopers.

Doolittle, W. E. 2004. Permanent vs. shifting cultivation in the eastern woodlands of North America prior to European contact. Agriculture and Human Values, v. 21, no. 2-3, p. 181-189.