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Adaptive Fuel Procurement in Nineteenth-Century Great Plains Landscapes

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Harnessing energy for cooking, heating, eating, and travel is a fundamental human requirement and, prior to fossil fuel adoption, much energy was derived from local landscapes. In the North American Great Plains, the nineteenth century was a period of rapid social–ecological change, and adaptive fuel procurement was at its core. Here, we review nineteenth-century accounts of energy acquisition and use in Great Plains landscapes, documenting the utilities, renewabilities and geographic distributions of important organic fuels, excluding coal. Native and Euro-Americans devised and adopted diverse strategies for accessing energy stored in herbaceous biomass and woody biomass, which, although variable in form, availability, specific energy and energy density, could generally be obtained locally and regenerate relatively quickly. Three forms of herbaceous biomass – forage (undigested), buffalo chips (partially digested) and pemmican (metabolized) – were associated with ubiquity of prairie vegetation and bison, whereas woody biomass was a rarer fuel largely restricted to lowlands and decreasing from east to west. Amidst transformational waves of colonisation in dynamic environments, seasonal strategies for securing energy locally were supplanted by strategies of fuel storage and importation. All fuel-based adaptations had social–ecological causes and consequences and, in nineteenth century plains landscapes, colonisation facilitated rapid, cross-cultural exchanges of fuel sources, technologies, strategies for increasing energy access and human environmental influences that collectively shaped regional environmental history.
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Keywords: North America; bioenergy; biomass; colonisation; cow chips; grass; landcover; landuse; sustainability; wood

Appeared or available online: April 5, 2019

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