Pyric phases in Madagascar’s longer-than-presumed prehistory

An exciting archaeological find by Bob Dewar [1] and colleagues suggests the presence of hunter-gatherers on Madagascar around 4000 years ago, which essentially doubles the length of the history of Madagascar’s human settlement. Their discovery, published in PNAS [2], suggests four thousand years of people living, burning, cultivating, shaping, transforming, and developing the island’s environment, instead of around two thousand [3]. From a pyrogeography perspective, Dewar and colleagues make an important point towards the end of their paper:

“…the view that Madagascar’s history can be sharply divided by the arrival of humans between an undisturbed Eden and anthropogenic chaos is no longer tenable. The activities of foraging populations have environmental consequences that differ in both degree and nature from those of Iron Age farmers and pastoralists, and changes in paleoenvironmental proxies interpreted as signaling ‘human arrival’ may in fact be signals of a change in human economy. Fire is used differently as a tool by foragers, farmers, and pastoralists. Interpreting Holocene histories of fire regimes requires distinguishing not only between “natural” and “anthropogenic,” but also among different, historically distinct, patterns of fire use by people.”

This echoes an argument that David Bowman and colleagues (including me) made in a paper two years ago [2]. We argued that

“Humans are the keystone species for fire on Earth, and there is a continuity between biomass burning by hunter–gatherers and then agriculturalists and later fossil fuel consumption following the Industrial Revolution. We suggest that studying the transition from one style of fire management (pyric phase) to another is a key to understanding the dynamics of human and fire interactions, and the consequences that have cascaded through Earth systems and human societies”

Figure 3 from Bowman et al. 2011 The human dimension of fire regimes on Earth. Journal of Biogeography 38:2223-2236.

Global pyric phases illustrated as classic fire triangles (Figure 3 from Bowman et al. 2011)

We specified that there were several key transitions between global pyric phases: the domestication of fire, the invention of agriculture, the industrial revolution and modernity. In the case of Madagascar’s now longer prehistory, one might imagine six overlapping pyric phases:

  • Before first humans (4000+ years ago): natural biospheric fire
  • Early African (?) foragers (4000 to ? years ago): wildland anthropogenic fire
  • Indonesian/African farmers (c.500 to present): agricultural anthropogenic fire
  • Indonesian/African pastoralists (c.900 to present): pastoral anthropogenic fire
  • Industrial agriculture (1900s to present): internal combustion and fire exclusion
  • Nature conservation (1920s to present): fire suppression and exclusion

I’m being fast and loose with Madagascar’s settlement and cultural history here – for instance this list presumes that the early settlers were largely foragers, and that agriculture was introduced by the Indonesian migrants. But the point is made – that different human socio-economic systems have different types of fire regimes associated with them, which must be considered when thinking about the history of environment and development on the island.


[1] Bob Dewar unfortunately passed away just a few months ago (obituaries here and here).  Like many Madagascar scholars, I’ll miss him. He and his wife (Alison Richard) generously helped me with reviews of a few manuscripts and proposals Yale as I was beginning my PhD at Yale.

[2] Dewar, RE, C Radimilahy, HT Wright, Z Jacobs, GO Kelly & F Berna (2013) Stone tools and foraging in northern Madagascar challenge Holocene extinction models. PNAS 110 (31):12583-12588. pdf/html

[3] Evidence of settlements only extends back to 700 CE, and some other disparate sources hinted at human presence around 200 BCE (see Dewar et al. for some key sources)

[4] Bowman, DMJS, JK Balch, P Artaxo, WJ Bond, MA Cochrane, CM D’Antonio, R DeFries, FH Johnston, JE Keeley, MA Krawchuk, CA Kull, M Mack, MA Moritz, SJ Pyne, CI Roos, AC Scott, NS Sodhi & TW Swetnam (2011) The human dimension of fire regimes on Earth. Journal of Biogeography 38:2223-2236.  pdf  html

One Response to Pyric phases in Madagascar’s longer-than-presumed prehistory

  1. milliontrees says:

    Here in the new world, our understanding of the degree to which the land was radically altered by indigenous people before “discovery” by Europeans is just being understood by the general public, but not as widely as needed to have an impact on current land management practices.

    For example, native plant advocates have been engaged in recreating prairie in the Midwest for over 20 years. Trees—both native and non-native—were destroyed by the thousands to return to that vegetation type, simply because it was the pre-European landscape and was therefore perceived as “undisturbed.”

    But the fact is, the prairie had been artificially maintained by native Americans for thousands of years by conducting annual burns that prevented natural succession. Succession is a natural process. Setting fires is the anthropogenic alteration of nature. Now that these artificial prairies have been created in the Midwest, they are being artificially maintained with prescribed burns and widespread herbicide applications.

    Ironic, huh? In the pursuit of a “natural” landscape, we create one that is completely artificial and then we repeatedly burn and poison it in order to maintain it. It might be funny, if it weren’t doing so much damage to the environment.

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