An interdisciplinary team of scientists studying thousands of oyster shells along the Georgia coast, some as old as 4,500 years, has published new insights into how Native Americans sustained oyster harvests for thousands of years, observations that may lead to better management practices of oyster reefs today.
The new research argues that understanding the long-term stability of coastal ecosystems requires documenting past and present conditions of such environments, as well as considering their future. The findings highlight a remarkable stability of oyster reefs prior to the 20th century and have implications for oyster-reef restoration by serving as a guide for the selection of suitable oyster restoration sites in the future.
Shellfish, such as oysters, have long been a food staple for human populations around the world, including Native American communities along the coast of the southeastern United States. The eastern oyster Crassostrea virginica is a species studied frequently by biologists and marine ecologists because of the central role the species plays in coastal ecosystems.
Oyster reefs are a keystone species that provide critical habitats for other estuarine organisms. Oyster populations, however, have dramatically declined worldwide over the last 100 years due to overexploitation, climate change and habitat degradation.
“Oyster reefs were an integral part of the Native American landscape and our study shows that their sustainability over long periods of time was likely due to the sophisticated cultural systems that governed harvesting practices,” said Thompson, professor of anthropology in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences and director of the UGA Laboratory of Archaeology.
According to Thompson, prior models used by archaeologists have not adequately accounted for the role Indigenous people had not only sustaining ecosystems, but also enhancing biodiversity.