Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Welikia Project: Uncovering the Ecology of Pre-European New York City

Believe it or not, New York City has not been around forever.  Though it has garnered a reputation as one of world’s largest and most important metropolitan areas, compared to many other major cities around the globe, New York is actually on the younger side.  In fact, if one were to look back a mere four hundred years, where we now see grids, asphalt and towering structures of stone and steel, we would actually see a rather unfamiliar picture: a lush, sprawling and diverse natural landscape. 

Such was the finding of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Welikia Project.  Originally dubbed the Manhatta Project, this research initiative was an attempt by scientists to reveal the original 1609 ecology of the city’s largest borough, and has since expanded to include all five boroughs and parts of western Long Island (hence the name change).  The results of the study are actually quite striking, as evidenced by the interactive “Welikia Map,” essentially a Google Maps rendering of 1609 NYC.  A visitor to the Welikia Project’s website will find that the map renders a wholly alien New York, an ecologically rich landscape covered in streams, forests, marshes, hills and other natural phenomena, a fascinating look at a city that we so often take for granted. 
Map of "Welikia"

The Welikia Map even boasts an interactive feature that allows the viewer to more closely examine the wildlife and landscape of individual blocks, and then compare those features to its modern day manifestation.  From an archaeological standpoint, however, the most intriguing aspect of this feature is the tab that allows the viewer to explore the lifestyle and landscape of the Lenape people who inhabited the area before Europeans arrived.  When I first visited the Welikia Project’s website, I was actually worried that I would only find an ecological survey of 1609 New York, void of any reference to the humans who lived as a part of that ecosystem for hundreds of years. I was, however, pleasantly surprised, as the interactive Welikia Map allows for exploration of the landscape habitat of the Lenape, as well as the species of animals and plants they would have hunted and gathered.  For example, in the area where Columbia University currently stands, the landscape most likely did not allow for Lenape encampments or trails, but the ecology did include many animals that the Lenape hunted, including the Wild Turkey and White-tailed Deer, and plants that they gathered, such as the Lowbush Blueberry and Lyreleaf Sage.
Morningside Heights, 1609

As an archaeologist, one aspect of the Welikia Map that is a bit discomforting is the fact that the modern New York grid is mapped across the original 1609 ecology, not to mention the modern borders of boroughs, cities and states.  Though the interactive tabs do allow for a more direct experience of Welikia, I still feel that the map does not allow for a truly experiential study of the landscape.  How is one to truly understand the pre-European landscape if one is consciously aware of the fact that the meadow he or she is exploring is now on Fifth Avenue, or that the forested area he or she is interested in is currently home to the Spanish Embassy?  In addition, the stark change from diverse natural landscape to modern day grid dangerously borders on the territory of suggesting that European settlers mapped order onto an area in which none previously existed. 
Modern grid mapped onto 1609 ecology of Manhattan Island

Now, to be fair, this is not necessarily the responsibility of the Wildlife Conservation Society; their goals are almost purely ecological.  The study does, however, provide valuable tools for archaeologists and other researchers who would seek to expand upon this reconstruction of the 17th century New York City landscape.  Some have already taken this opportunity, including Marguerite Holloway, assistant professor at the Columbia University School of Journalism, whose recently published book, Measuring Manhattan, centers on John Randel Jr., the man who, in 1808, set out to map the modern grid of Manhattan Island.  Originally charged with writing a piece on what was then the Manhatta Project, Holloway became fascinated by Randel, whose data scientists depended upon in their ecological reconstructions, and eventually turned that fascination into a full-length biography.
John Randel Jr., from

One final mission of the Welikia Project that could prove fruitful for further archaeological study is to turn to the “modern biodiversity” of the city, relating the landscapes and lifestyles of contemporary New Yorkers to those of the area’s pre-European inhabitants. 

Though these represent only a fragment of the possibilities afforded to us through the Welikia Project, they show the ways in which the Wildlife Conservation Society has opened the door to understanding the meaning of landscape and place in relation to the original ecology of a major metropolitan area; the effects of modern mapping on a diverse natural landscape, as well as the effects of that landscape on the mapping process; and, finally, a way of experiencing the cityscape as an unfamiliar space, as a vibrant ecosystem filled with a myriad of foreign habitats, just waiting to be explored.

Welikia Project website:

Wildlife Conservation Society website:

Article on Marguerite Holloway’s Randel biography:

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