7 Jun 2008, 12:17am
Cultivated Landscapes Cultural Landscapes The Wilderness Myth
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The Pristine Myth: The Landscape of the Americas in 1492

William Denevan. 1992. The Pristine Myth: The Landscape of the Americas in 1492. Annals of the American Association of Geographers v. 82 n. 3 (Sept. 1992), pp. 369-385.

Full text [here]

Much of the environmental movement is animated, consciously or not, by what geographer William Denevan calls “the pristine myth”—the belief that the Americas in 1491 were an almost untouched, even Edenic land, “untrammeled by man,” in the words of the Wilderness Act of 1964, a U.S. law that is one of the founding documents of the global environmental movement. - Charles C. Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus.

Selected excerpts:

Abstract. The myth persists that in 1492 the Americas were a sparsely populated wilderness, 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, wildlife disrupted, and erosion was severe in places. Earthworks, roads, fields, and settlements were ubiquitous. With Indian depopulation in the wake of Old World disease, the environment recovered in many areas. A good argument can be made that the human presence was less visible in 1750 than it was in 1492.

What was the New World like at the time of Columbus? “Geography as it was,” in the words of Carl Sauer (1971). The Admiral himself spoke of a “Terrestrial Paradise,” beautiful and green and fertile, 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 Americans being dramatic and persistent? The former still seems to be the more common view, but the latter may be more accurate.

The pristine view is to a large extent an invention of nineteenth-century romanticist and primitivist writers such as W.H. Hudson, Cooper, Thoreau, Longfellow, and Parkman, and painters such as Catlin and Church. The wilderness image has since become part of the American heritage, associated “with a heroic pioneer past in need of preservation” (Pyne 1982, Bowden 1992). The pristine view was restated clearly in 1950 by John Bakeless 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 … so 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 (Bakeless 1950).

But then he mentions that Indian “prairie fires . . . cause the often-mentioned oak openings … Great fields of corn spread in all directions … the Barrens … without forest,” and that “Early Ohio settlers found that they could drive about through the forests with sleds and horses” (Ibid). 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 commonplace. This message, however, seems not to have reached the public through texts, essays, or talks by both academics and popularizers who have a responsibility to know better. …

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3 Jun 2008, 3:55pm
Native Cultures The Wilderness Myth Wildlife History
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Were Native People Keystone Predators? A Continuous-Time Analysis of Wildlife Observations Made by Lewis and Clark in 1804-1806

Kay, Charles E. 2007. Were native people keystone predators? A continuous-time analysis of wildlife observations made by Lewis and Clark in 1804-1806. Canadian Field-Naturalist 121(1): 1–16.

Full text [here]

Note: the The Canadian Field-Naturalist is about a year and a half behind in actual publication, so although the journal issue in which this paper appeared is dated Jan.-March 2007, the publication was available only earlier this week. Full text with cover is [here]. The cover of the issue features the C.M. Russell painting entitled “When Blackfeet and Sioux Meet.”

Selected excerpts:

Abstract: It has long been claimed that native people were conservationists who had little or no impact on wildlife populations. More recently, though, it has been suggested that native people were keystone predators, who lacked any effective conservation strategies and instead routinely overexploited large mammal populations. To test these hypotheses, I performed a continuous time analysis of wildlife observations made by Lewis and Clark because their journals are often cited as an example of how western North America teemed with wildlife before that area was despoiled by advancing European civilization. This included Bison, Elk, Mule Deer, Whitetailed Deer, Blacktailed Deer, Moose, Pronghorn Antelope, Bighorn Sheep, Grizzly Bears, Black Bears, and Grey Wolves. I also recorded all occasions on which Lewis and Clark met native peoples. Those data show a strong inverse relationship between native people and wildlife. The only places Lewis and Clark reported an abundance of game were in aboriginal buffer zones between tribes at war, but even there, wildlife populations were predator, not food-limited. Bison, Grizzly Bears, Bighorn Sheep, Mule Deer, and Grey Wolves were seldom seen except in aboriginal buffer zones. Moose were most susceptible to aboriginal hunting followed by Bison and then Elk, while Whitetailed Deer had a more effective escape strategy. If it had not been for aboriginal buffer zones, Lewis and Clark would have found little wildlife anywhere in the West. Moreover, prior to the 1780 smallpox and other earlier epidemics that decimated native populations in advance of European contact, there were more aboriginal people and even less wildlife. The patterns observed by Lewis and Clark are consistent with optimal foraging theory and other evolutionary ecology predictions.


It has long been postulated that native people were conservationists who had little or no impact on wildlife populations (e.g.; Speck 1913, 1939a, 1939b). Studies of modern hunter-gatherers, however, have found little evidence that native people purposefully employ conservation strategies (Alvard 1993, 1994, 1995, 1998a, 1998b; Hill and Hurtado 1996), while archaeological data suggest that prehistoric people routinely overexploited large-mammal populations (Broughton 1994a, 1994b, 1997; Jones and Hilderbrant 1995; Janetski 1997; Butler 2000; Chatters 2004). Elsewhere, I have proposed that native people were keystone predators, who once structured entire ecosystems (Kay 1994, 1995, 1997a, 1997b, 1998, 2002).

To test these competing hypotheses, I performed a continuous-time analysis of wildlife observations made by Lewis and Clark on their expedition across North America in 1804-1806 because their journals are often cited as an example of how the West teemed with wildlife before that area was despoiled by advancing European civilization (Botkin 1995, 2004; Patten 1998: 70; Wilkinson and Rauber 2002; Nie 2003: 1). Lewis and Clark were the first Europeans to traverse what eventually became the western United States, and many of the native peoples they met had never before encountered Europeans. In addition, historians universally agree that Lewis and Clark’s journals are not only among the earliest, but also the most detailed and accurate, especially regarding natural history observations (Burroughs 1961; Ronda 1984; Botkin 1995, 2004). Thus, the descriptions left by Lewis and Clark are thought by many to represent the “pristine” state of western ecosystems (Craighead 1998: 597; Patten 1998: 70; Wilkinson and Rauber 2002; Botkin 2004). Botkin (1995: 1), for instance, described Lewis and Clark’s journey as “the greatest wilderness trip ever recorded.” …

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