{[ promptMessage ]}

Bookmark it

{[ promptMessage ]}

Denevan (1992) The Pristine Myth the Landscape of the Americas in 1492

Denevan (1992) The Pristine Myth the Landscape of the Americas in 1492

Info iconThis preview shows pages 1–18. Sign up to view the full content.

View Full Document Right Arrow Icon
Background image of page 1

Info iconThis preview has intentionally blurred sections. Sign up to view the full version.

View Full Document Right Arrow Icon
Background image of page 2
Background image of page 3

Info iconThis preview has intentionally blurred sections. Sign up to view the full version.

View Full Document Right Arrow Icon
Background image of page 4
Background image of page 5

Info iconThis preview has intentionally blurred sections. Sign up to view the full version.

View Full Document Right Arrow Icon
Background image of page 6
Background image of page 7

Info iconThis preview has intentionally blurred sections. Sign up to view the full version.

View Full Document Right Arrow Icon
Background image of page 8
Background image of page 9

Info iconThis preview has intentionally blurred sections. Sign up to view the full version.

View Full Document Right Arrow Icon
Background image of page 10
Background image of page 11

Info iconThis preview has intentionally blurred sections. Sign up to view the full version.

View Full Document Right Arrow Icon
Background image of page 12
Background image of page 13

Info iconThis preview has intentionally blurred sections. Sign up to view the full version.

View Full Document Right Arrow Icon
Background image of page 14
Background image of page 15

Info iconThis preview has intentionally blurred sections. Sign up to view the full version.

View Full Document Right Arrow Icon
Background image of page 16
Background image of page 17

Info iconThis preview has intentionally blurred sections. Sign up to view the full version.

View Full Document Right Arrow Icon
Background image of page 18
This is the end of the preview. Sign up to access the rest of the document.

Unformatted text preview: Abstract. The myth persists that in 1492 the Americas were a sparsely populated wilder- ness, "a world of barely perceptible human disturbance.” There is substantial evidence, however, that the Native American landscape of the early sixteenth century was a humanized landscape almost everywhere. Populations were large. Forest composition had been modified, grasslands had been created, wild- life disrupted, and erosion was severe in places. Earthworks, roads, fields, and settle- ments were ubiquitous. With Indian depopu- lation in the wake of Old World disease, the environment recovered in many areas. A good argument can be made that the human pres- ence was less visible in 1750 than it was in 1492. Key Words: Pristine myth, 1492, Columbus, Native American settiernent and demography, prehistoric New World, vegetation change, earthworks. "This is the forest primeval . . . " Evangeline: A Tale of Acadia (Longfellow, 1847). HAT was the New World like at the time of Columbus?—“Geography as it was,” in the words of Carl Sauer (1971, it).1 The Admiral himself spoke of a "Ter- restrial Paradise," beautiful and green and fer— tile, teeming with birds, with naked people living there whom he called “Indians.” But was the landscape encountered in the sixteenth century primarily pristine, virgin, a wilderness, nearly empty of people, or was it a humanized landscape, with the imprint of native Ameri- cans being dramatic and persistent? The for- mer still seems to be the more common view, but the latter may be more accurate. The pristine view is to a large extent an in- vention of nineteenth-century romanticist and The Pristine Myth: The Landscape of the Americas in 1492 William M. Denevan Department of Geography, University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI 53706 primitivist writers such as W.H. Hudson, Cooper, Thoreau, Longfellow, and Parkman, and painters such as Catlin and Church.2 The wilderness image has since become part of the American heritage, associated "with a heroic pioneer past in need of preservation” (Pyne 1982, 17; also see Bowden 1992, 22). The pris- tine view was restated clearly in 1950 by John Bakeiess in his book The Eyes of Discovery: There were not really very many of these redmen . . . the land seemed empty to invaders who came from settled Europe . . that ancient, primeval. undisturbed wilderness . . . the streams simply boiled with fish . . . 5|) much game . . . that one hunter counted a thousand animals near a single salt lick . . . the virgin wilderness of Kentucky . . . the forested glory of primitive America (13, 201, 223, 314, 407). But then he mentions that Indian "prairie fires . cause the often-mentioned oak open- ings . . . Great fields of corn spread in all direc- tions . . . the Barrens . . _ without forest,” and that “Early Ohio settlers found that they could drive about through the forests with sleds and horses" (31, 304, 308, 314). A contradiction? In the ensuing forty years, scholarship has shown that Indian populations in the Americas were substantial, that the forests had indeed been altered, that landscape change was com- monplace. This message, however, seems not to have reached the public through texts, es- says, or talks by both academics and popular- izers who have a responsibility to know better.3 Kirkpatrick Sale in 1990, in his widely re— ported Conquest of Paradise, maintains that it was the Europeans who transformed nature, following a pattern set by Columbus. Although Sale's book has some merit and he is aware of large Indian numbers and their impacts, he nonetheless champions the widely-held di- chotomy of the benign Indian landscape and Annals of the Association of Alnencan Geographers SIIJJ, 1992. pp. 359—JBS Q anrighl 1992 by Association 0! American Geographers 370 the devastated Colonial landscape. He over- states both. Similarly, Seeds of Change: Christopher Co- lumbus and the Colombian Legacy, the popu- lar book published by the Smithsonian Institu- tion, continues the litany of Native American passivity: pre-Columbian America was still the First Eden, a pristine natural kingdom. The native people were transparent in the landscape, living as natural ele- ments of the ecosphere. Their world, the New World of Columbus, was a world of barely percep- tible human disturbance (Shetler 1991, 226). To the contrary, the lndian impact was neither benign nor localized and ephemeral, nor were resources aiways used in a sound ecological way. The concern here is with the form and magnitude of environmental modification rather than with whether or not Indians lived in harmony with nature with sustainable sys- tems of resource management. Sometimes they did; sometimes they didn’t. What they did was to change their landscape nearly every- where, not to the extent of post—Colonial Euro- peans but in important ways that merit atten- tion. The evidence is convincing. By 1492 Indian activity throughout the Americas had modified forest extent and composition, created and ex- panded grasslands, and rearranged microrelief via countless artificial earthworks. Agricultural fields were common, as were houses and towns and roads and traits. All of these had local impacts on soil, microclimate, hydrology, and wildlife. This is a large topic, for which this essay offers but an introduction to the issues, misconceptions, and residual problems. The evidence, pieced together from vague ethno- historical accounts, field surveys, and archae- ology, supports the hypothesis that the lndian landSCape of 1492 had largely vanished by the mid-eighteenth century, not through a Euro- pean superimposition, but because of the de- mise oi the native population. The iandscape of 1750 was more “pristine” (less humanized) than that of 1492. Indian Numbers The size of the native population at contact is critical to our argument. The prevailing po- sition, a recent one, is that the Americas were well-populated rather than relatively empty lands in 1492. In the words of the sixteenth- Denevan century Spanish priest, Bartolomé de las Casas, who knew the Indies well: All that has been discovered up to the year forty- nine [1549] is full of people, like a hive of bees, so that it seems as though God had placed all, or the greater part of the entire human race in these countries (Las Casas, in MacNutt 1909, 314). Las Casas believed that more than 40 million Indians had died by the year 1560. Did he ex- aggerate? in the 19305 and 19405, Alfred Kroe- ber, Angel Rosenbiat, and Julian Steward be- lieved that he had. The best counts then available indicated a population of between 8— 15 million Indians in the Americas. Subse- quently, Carl Sauer, Woodrow Borah, Sher— burne F. Cook, Henry Dobyns, George Lovell, N. David Cook, myself, and others have argued for larger estimates. Many scholars now believe that there were between 40—100 million Indians in the hemisphere (Denevan 1992). This conclu- sion is primarily based on evidence of rapid early declines from epidemic disease prior to the first population counts (Loveil, this vol- ume). l have recently suggested a New World total of 53.9 million (Denevan 1992, xxvii). This di- vides into 3.8 million for North America, 17.2 million for Mexico, 5.6 million for Central America, 3.0 million for the Caribbean, 15.7 million for the Andes, and 8.6 million for low- land South America. These figures are based on my judgment as to the most reasonable recent tribal and regional estimates. Accepting a mar- gin of error of about 20 percent, the New World population would lie between 43—65 million. Future regional revisions are likely to maintain the hemispheric total within this range. Other recent estimates, none based on totaling re- gional figures, include 43 million by Whitmore (1991, 483), 40 million by Lord and Burke (1991). 40—50 million by Cowley (1991), and 80 million for just Latin America by Schwerin (1991, 40). In any event, a population betwaen 40—80 million is sufficient to dispel any notion of "empty lands.“ Moreover, the native impact on the landscape of 1492 reflected not only the popu- lation then but the cumulative effects of a growing population over the previous 15,000 years or more. European entry into the New World abruptly reversed this trend. The decline of native Amer- ican populations was rapid and severe, proba— bly the greatest demographic disaster ever (Lovell, this volume). Old World diseases were The Pristine Myth the primary killer. In many regions, particularly the tropical lowlands, populations fell by 90 percent or more in the first century after con- tact. Indian populations (estimated) declined in Hispaniola from 1 million in 1492 to a few hundred 50 years later, or by more than 99 percent; in Peru from 9 million in 1520 to 670,000 in 1620 (92 percent); in the Basin of Mexico from 1.6 million in 1519 to 180,000 in 1607 (89 percent); and in North America from 3.8 million in 1492 to1 million in 1800 (74 per- cent). An overall drop from 53.9 million in 1492 to 5.6 million in 1650 amounts to an 89 percent reduction (Denevan 1992, xvii—xxix). The human landscape was affected accordingly, al- though there is not always a direct relationship between population density and human impact (Whitmore, et al. 1990, 37). The replacement of Indians by Europeans and Africans was initially a slow process. By 1633 there were only about 30,000 English in North America (Sale 1990, 388), and by 1750 there were only 1.3 million Europeans and slaves (Meinig 1986, 247). For Latin America in 1750, sanchez-Albornoz (1974, 7) gives a total (including Indians) of 12 million. For the hemi- sphere in 1750, the Atlas of World Population History reports 16 million (McEvedy and Jones 1978, 270). Thus the overall hemispheric popu- lation in 1750 was ab0ut 30 percent of what it may have been in 1492. The 1750 population, however, was very unevenly distributed, mainly located in certain coastal and highland areas with little Europeanization elsewhere. In North America in 1750, there were only small pockets of settlement beyond the coastal belt, stretching from New England to northern Flor- ida (see maps in Meinig 1986, 209, 245). Eise- where, combined Indian and European popu- lations were sparse, and environmental impact was relatively minor. Indigenous imprints on landscapes at the time of initial European contact varied region- ally in form and intensity. Following are exam- ples for vegetation and wildlife, agriculture, and the built landscape. Vegetation The Eastern Forests The forests of New England, the Midwest, and the Southeast had been disturbed to vary- 371 ing degrees by Indian activity prior to European occupation. Agricultural clearing and burning had converted much of the forest into succes- sional (fallow) growth and into semi-permanent grassy openings (meadows, barrens, plains, glades, savannas, prairies), often of consider- able size.‘ Much of the mature forest was char- acterized by an open, herbaceous understory, reflecting frequent ground fires. "The de Soto expedition, consisting of many people, a large horse herd, and many swine, passed through ten states without difficulty of movement” (Sauer 1971, 283). The situation has been de- scribed in detail by Michael Williams in his recent history of American forests: "Much of the ‘natural’ forest remained, but the forest was not the vast, silent, unbroken, impenetrable and dense tangle of trees beloved by many writers in their romantic accounts of the forest wilderness” (1989, 33).” "The result was a forest of large, widely spaced trees, few shrubs, and much grass and herbage . . . Selective Indian burning thus promoted the mosaic quality of New England ecosystems, creating forests in many different states of ecological succession" (Cronon 1983, 49—51). The extent, frequency, and impact of Indian burning is not without controversy. Raup (1937) argued that climatic change rather than Indian burning could account for certain vegetation changes. Emily Russell (1983, 86), assessing pre- 1700 information for the Northeast, concluded that: "There is no strong evidence that Indians purposely burned large areas," but Indians did "increase the frequency of fires above the low numbers caused by lightning,” creating an open forest. But then Russell adds: “In most areas climate and soil probably played the major role in determining the precolonial for- ests." She regards Indian fires as mainly acci- dental and "merely" augmental to natural fires, and she discounts the reiiability of many early accounts of burning. Forman and Russell (1983, 5) expand the ar- gument to North America in general: "regular and widespread Indian burning (Day 1953) [is] an unlikely hypothesis that regretfully has been accepted in the popular literature and con- sciousness." This conclusion, I beiieve, is un- warranted given reports of the extent of prehis- toric human burning in North America and Australia (Lewis 1982), and Europe (Patterson and Sassaman 1988, 130), and by my own and other observations on current Indian and peas- 3.72 Dene-van ant burning in Central America and South America; when unrestrained, people burn fre- quently and for many reasons. For the North- east, Patterson and Sassaman (1988, 129) found that sedimentary charcoal accumulations were greatest where Indian populations were great- est. Elsewhere in North America, the Southeast is much more fire prone than is the Northeast, with human ignitions being especially import- ant in winter (Taylor 1981). The Berkeley geog- rapher and Indianist Erhard Rostlund (1957, 1960) argued that Indian clearing and burning created many grasslands within mostly open forest in the so-called "prairie belt" of Ala- bama. As improbable as it may seem, Lewis (1982) found Indian burning in the subarctic, and Dobyns (1981) in the Sonoran desert. The characteristics and impacts of fires set by Indi- ans varied regionally and locally with demog- raphy, resource management techniques, and environment, but such fires clearly had differ- ent vegetation impacts than did natural fires owing to differences in frequency, regularity, and seasonality. Forest Composition In North America, burning not only main- tained open forest and small meadows but also encouraged fire-tolerant and sun-loving spe- cies. "Fire created conditions favorable to strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, and other gatherable foods” (Cronon 1983, 51). Other useful plants were saved, protected, planted, and transplanted, such as American chestnut, Canada plum, Kentucky coffee tree, groundnut, and leek (Day 1953, 339—40). Gil- more (1931) described the dispersal of several native plants by Indians. Mixed stands were converted to single species dominants, includ- ing various pines and oaks, sequoia, Douglas fir, spruce, and aspen (M. Williams 1989, 47— 48). The longleaf, slash pine, and scrub oak forests of the Southeast are almost certainly an anthropogenic subclimax created originally by Indian burning, replaced in early Colonial times by mixed hardwoods, and maintained in part by fires set by subsequent farmers and woodlot owners (Garren 1943). Lightning fires can account for some fire-climax vegetation, but Indian burning would have extended and maintained such vegetation (Silver 1990, 17—19, 59—64). Even in the humid tropics, where natural fires are rare, human fires can dramatically influence forest composition. A good example is the pine forests of Nicaragua (Denevan 1961). Open pine stands occur both in the northern highlands (below 5,000 feet) and in the eastern (Miskito) lowlands, where warm temperatures and heavy rainfall generally favor mixed tropi- cal montane forest or rainforest. The extensive pine farests of Guatemala and Mexico primarily grow in cooler and drier, higher elevations, where they are in large part natural and prehu- man (Watts and Bradbury 1982, 59). Pine forests were definitely present in Nicaragua when Eu- ropeans arrived. They were found in areas where Indian settlement was substantial, but not in the eastern mountains where Indian den— sities were sparse. The eastern boundary of the highland pines seems to have moved with an eastern settlement frontier that has fluctuated back and forth since prehistory. The pines occur today where there has been clearing fol« lowed by regular burning and the same is likely in the past. The Nicaraguan pines are fire tol- erant once mature, and large numbers of seed- lings survive to maturity if they can escape fire during their first three to seven years (Denevan 1961, 280). Where settlement has been aban- doned and fire ceases, mixed hardwoods grad- ually replace pines. This succession is likely similar where pines occur elsewhere at low el- evations in tropical Central America, the Carib- bean, and Mexico. Midwest Prairies and Tropical Savannas Sauer (1950, 1958, 1975) argued early and often that the great grasslands and savannas of the New World were of anthropogenic rather than climatic origin, that rainfall was generally sufficient to support trees. Even nonagricul- tural Indians expanded what may have been pockets of natural, edaphic grasslands at the expense of forest. A fire burning to the edge of a grass/forest boundary will penetrate the drier forest margin and push back the edge, even if the forest itself is not consumed (Mueller- Dombois 1981, 164). Grassland can therefore advance significantly in the wake of hundreds of years of annual fires. Lightning-set fires can have a similar impact, but more slowly if less The Pristine Myth frequent than human fires, as in the wet trop- ics. The thesis of prairies as fire induced, primar- ily by Indians, has its critics (Borchert 1950; Wedel 1957), but the recent review of the topic by Anderson (1990, 14), a biologist, concludes that most ecologists now believe that the eastern prairies "would have mostly disap- peared if it had not been for the nearly annual burning of these grasslands by the North American Indians,” during the last 5,000 years. A case in point is the nineteenth-century inva- sion of many grasslands by forests after fire had been suppressed in Wisconsin, Illinois, Kan- sas, Nebraska, and elsewhere (M. Williams 1989, 46). The large savannas of South America are also controversial as to origin. Much, if not most of the open vegetation of the Orinoco Llanos, the Llanos de Moios of Bolivia, the Pantanal of Mato Grosso, the Bolivar savannas of Colom- bia, the Guayas savannas of coastal Ecuador, the campo cerrado of central Brazil, and the coastal savannas north of the Amazon, is of natural origin. The vast campos cerrados oc- cupy extremely senile, often toxic oxisols. The seasonally inundated savannas of Bolivia, Bra- zil, Guayas, and the Orinoco owe their exis- tence to the intolerance of woody species to the extreme alternation of lengthy flooding or waterlogging and severe desiccation during a long dry season. These savannas, however, were and are burned by indians and ranchers, and such fires have expanded the savannas into the forests to an unknown extent. It is now very difficult to determine where a natural for- est/savanna boundary once was located (Hills and Randall 1968; Medina 1980). Other smail savannas have been cut out of the rainforest by Indian farmers and then main- tained by burning. An example is the Gran Pajonal in the Andean foothills in east-central Peru, where dozens of small grasslands (pajonaies) have been created by Campa Indi— ans—a process clearly documented by air pho- tos (Scott 1978). Paionaies were in existence when the region was first penetrated by Fran- ciscan missionary explorers in 1733. The impact of human activity is nicely illustrated by vegetational changes in the ba- sins of the San Jorge, Cauca, and Shirt rivers of northern Colombia. The southern sector, which was mainly savanna when first observed in the sixteenth century, had reverted to rainforest by abo...
View Full Document

{[ snackBarMessage ]}