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Unformatted text preview: CHRISTOPHER T. FISHER Demographic and Landscape Change in the Lake Patzcuaro Basin, Mexico: Abandoning the Garden ABSTRACT Land degradation is frequently cited as a factor in the collapse of ancient complex societies. Implicit in these tales of ecological suicide is the assumption that land degradation is an ecological rather than a social problem. Here, I discuss how land degradation can be reconceptualized as a socialenvironmental dialectic. I then discuss the implications of this perspective using evidence from a recent landscape project exploring diachronic relationships between environmental and social transformations in the development of the Precolumbian Tarascan (Purepecha) empire, centered in the Lake Patzcuaro Basin, Mexico. Project findings challenge common conceptions regarding the impact of agriculture, urbanism, and state collapse on ancient landscapes, as well as the dating of the most serious episodes of degradation. [Keywords: land degradation, Mesoamerica, landscapes, Tarascan, socioecological systems] I N THE LONG-STANDING EFFORT to explain the break- down of past civilizations, the role of land degradation often is made a key culprit, with a simple lesson extrapo- lated as an implication to correct contemporary environ- mental woes. In the words of Jared Diamond, Few people, however, least of all our politicians, realize that a primary cause of the collapse of . . . [civilizations] . . . has been the destruction of the environmental resources on which they depended (2003:43). Implicit to this view is the idea that, to varying degrees and at many scales, humans transform the wild into garden and, in the process, create an en- vironment that can be almost entirely anthropogenic. But what happens to the garden once it is abandoned? I begin my discussion by defining land degradation and outlining ways that it can be conceptualized as a human environmental, as well as ecological, process. Here, I ar- gue that many accounts of ancient ecological suicide actu- ally confuse cause and effect, and that massive land degra- dation most commonly occurs from the abandonment of built environments (landesque capital). As an example, I use data derived from a recent multidisciplinary project that explores relationships between environmental and social transformations in the development of the Precolumbian Tarascan empire centered in the Lake Patzcuaro Basin, Mex- ico (Figure 1). Three findings from this research challenge common conceptions regarding the relationship between agriculture, urbanism, state collapse, and land degradation: (1) settlement, rather than agriculture, often initiates cycles AMERICAN ANTHROPOLOGIST , Vol. 107, Issue 1, pp. 8795, ISSN 0002-7294, electronic ISSN 1548-1433....
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- Fall '08
- The American