Pyrogeography at SMU

Photo by Ignacio Peralta, Carson National Forest (2003).

What is pyrogeography? In a nutshell, it is the holistic study of fire on earth from its earliest beginnings more than 400 million years ago to the present. Fire has influenced the evolution of biota, including our lineage, for millions of years. Human fire-use was a multi-purpose tool that facilitated our migrations across the globe. Today, human communities and our surrounding environments face a number of challenges to cope with wildfire. Some of these problems are novel, whereas others have historical precedent. For example, as human settlements have encroached upon fire-prone forests in the Western US (and elsewhere), we are struggling to cope with the reality that fire and smoke are an inevitable part of these settings. Living with wildfire, however, is something that our ancestors dealt with as a fact of life. We can learn a lot from our ancestors.

For example, we can learn how ancient societies lived with fire and smoke, used fire as a tool on the landscape, and made “fire-wise” communities through their wood-use practices. My research group at SMU is tackling these very issues in places as varied as the forested Jemez Mountains of New Mexico, the prairies of northern Montana, and tropical dry forests of Viti Levu, Fiji. You can find out more on my research and publication pages. My group also published a magazine for the general public on our work in New Mexico via Archaeology Southwest that can be found here

Undergraduate and graduate students are involved in this research as research assistants and several have taken elements of these projects to develop senior theses in Environmental Studies or PhD dissertations in Anthropology. Additionally, I have recently developed two new courses on pyrogeography at SMU. ANTH 3370 – Fire on Earth is a fall semester course that introduces students to the holistic field of pyrogeography, with components on the geology, ecology, history, and anthropology of fire. ANTH 3373 – Living with Fire is a course that I developed specifically for our beautiful SMU-in-Taos campus. Taught in the May term, this course focuses on political and ecological history of the contemporary wildfire problem in the Western US. Taking advantage of the location of the SMU-in-Taos campus in fire-prone pine forests and taking a day-long field trip to the Jemez Mountains, this class uses place-based experiential learning to give students a platform to explore lessons from the past for the future of human communities in fire-prone landscapes.

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