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. …

To the contrary, the Indian impact was neither benign nor localized and ephemeral, nor were resources always 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 systems of resource management. Sometimes they did; sometimes they didn’t. What they did was to change their landscape nearly everywhere, not to the extent of post-Colonial Europeans but in important ways that merit attention.

The evidence is convincing. By 1492 Indian activity throughout the Americas had modified forest extent and composition, created and expanded grasslands, and rearranged microrelief via countless artificial earthworks. Agricultural fields were common, as were houses and towns and roads and trails. 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 ethnohistorical accounts, field surveys, and archaeology, supports the hypothesis that the Indian landscape of 1492 had largely vanished by the mid-eighteenth century, not through a European superimposition, but because of the demise of the native population. The landscape 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 position, a recent one, is that the Americas were well-populated rather than relatively empty lands in 1492. …

I have recently suggested a New World total of 53.9 million (Denevan 1992). This divides 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 lowland South America. These figures are based on my judgment as to the most reasonable recent tribal and regional estimates. Accepting a margin 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 regional figures, include 43 million by Whitmore (1991), 40 million by Lord and Burke (1991), 40-50 million by Cowley (1991), and 80 million for just Latin America by Schwerin (1991). In any event, a population between 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 population 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 American populations was rapid and severe, probably the greatest demographic disaster eve; (Lovell, this volume). Old World diseases were the primary killer. In many regions, particularly the tropical lowlands, populations fell by 90 percent or more in the first century after the contact. Indian populations (estimated) declined 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 107 (89 percent); and in North America from 3.8 million in 1492 to 1 million in 1800 (74 percent). An overall drop from 53.9 million in 1492 to 5.6 million in 1650 amounts to an 89 percent reduction (Denevan 1992). The human landscape was affected accordingly, although there is not always a direct relationship between population density and human impact (Whitmore et al. 1990). …


The Eastern Forests

The forests of New England, the Midwest, and the Southeast had been disturbed to varying degrees by Indian activity prior to European occupation. Agricultural clearing and burning had converted much of the forest into successional (fallow) growth and into semi-permanent grassy openings (meadows, barrens, plains, glades, savannas, prairies), often of considerable size. Much of the mature forest was characterized by an open, herbaceous understory, reflecting frequent ground fires. …

Forman and Russell (1983) expand the argument 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 consciousness.” This conclusion, I believe, is unwarranted given reports of the extent of prehistoric human burning in North America and Australia (Lewis 1982), and Europe (Patterson and Sassaman 1988), and by my own and other observations on current Indian and peasant burning in Central America and South America; when unrestrained, people burn frequently and for many reasons. For the Northeast, Patterson and Sassaman (1988) found that sedimentary charcoal accumulations were greatest where Indian populations were greatest.

Elsewhere in North America, the Southeast is much more fire prone than is the Northeast, with human ignitions being especially important in winter (Taylor 1981). The Berkeley geographer 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 Alabama. 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 Indians varied regionally and locally with demography, resource management techniques, and environment, but such fires clearly had different vegetation impacts than did natural fires owing to differences in frequency, regularity, and seasonality.

Forest Composition

In North America, burning not only maintained open forest and small meadows but also encouraged fire-tolerant and sun-loving species. “Fire created conditions favorable to strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, and other gatherable foods” (Cronon 1983). Other useful plants were saved, protected, planted, and transplanted, such as American chestnut, Canada plum, Kentucky coffee tree, groundnut, and leek (Day 1953). Gilmore (1931) described the dispersal of several native plants by Indians. Mixed stands were converted to single species dominants, including various pines and oaks, sequoia, Douglas fir, spruce, and aspen (M. Williams 1989). 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). …

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 nonagricultural 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 (MuellerDombois 1981). Grassland can therefore advance significantly in the wake of hundreds of years of annual fires.

Anthropogenic Tropical Rain Forest

The tropical rain forest has long had a reputation for being pristine, whether in 1492 or 1992. There is, however, increasing evidence that the forests of Amazonia and elsewhere are largely anthropogenic in form and composition. Sauer (1958) said as much at the Ninth Pacific Science Congress in 1957 when he challenged the statement of tropical botanist Paul Richards that, until recently, the tropical forests have been largely uninhabited, and that prehistoric people had “no more influence on the vegetation than any of the other animal inhabitants.” Sauer countered that Indian burning, swiddens, and manipulation of composition had extensively modified the tropical forest.

“Indeed, in much of Amazonia, it is difficult to find soils that are not studded with charcoal” (Uhl, et al. 1990). The question is, to what extent does this evidence reflect Indian burning in contrast to natural (lightning) fires, and when did these fires occur? The role of fire in tropical forest ecosystems has received considerable attention in recent years, partly as result of major wild fires in East Kalimantan in 1982-83 and small forest fires in the Venezuelan Amazon in 1980-84 (Goidammer 1990). Lightning fires, though rare in moist tropical forest, do occur in drier tropical woodlands (MuellerDombois 1981). Thunderstorms with lightning are much more common in the Amazon, compared to North America, but in the tropics lightning is usually associated with heavy rain and noncombustible, verdant vegetation. Hence Indian fires undoubtedly account for most fires in prehistory, with their impact varying with the degree of aridity. …

Indian modification of tropical forests is not limited to clearing and burning. Large expanses of Latin American forests are humanized forests in which the kinds, numbers, and distributions of useful species are managed by human populations. Doubtless, this applies to the past as well. One important mechanism in forest management is manipulation of swidden fallows (sequential agroforestry) to increase useful species. The planting, transplanting, sparing, and protection of useful wild, fallow plants eliminates clear distinctions between field and fallow (Denevan and Padoch 1988). …

The economic botanist William Balee (1987, 1989) speaks of “cultural” or “anthropogenic” forests in Amazonia in which species have been manipulated, often without a reduction in natural diversity. These include specialized forests (babassu, Brazil nuts, lianas, palms, bamboo), which currently make up at least 11.8 percent (measured) of the total upland forest in the Brazilian Amazon (Balee 1989). Clear indications of past disturbance are the extensive zones of terra preta (black earth), which occur along the edges of the large floodplains as well as in the uplands (Balee 1989, Smith 1980). These soils, with depths to 50 cm or more, contain charcoal and cultural waste from prehistoric burning and settlement. Given high carbon, nitrogen, calcium, and phosphorus content, terra preta soils have a distinctive vegetation and are attractive to farmers. Balee (1989, 14) concludes that “large portions of Amazonian forests appear to exhibit the continuing effects of past human interference.” The same argument has been made for the Kenya lowlands (Gómez-Pompa, et al. 1987) and Panama (Gordon, 1982). There are no virgin tropical forests today, nor were there in 1492. …


Fields and Associated Features

To observers in the sixteenth century, the most visible manifestation of the Native American landscape must have been the cultivated fields, which were concentrated around villages and houses. Most fields are ephemeral, their presence quickly erased when farmers migrate or die, but there are many eye-witness accounts of the great extent of Indian fields. On Hispaniola, Las Casas and Oviedo reported individual fields with thousands of montones (Sturtevant 1961). These were manioc and sweet potato mounds 3-4 m in circumference, of which apparently none have survived. In the Llanos de Moios in Bolivia, the first explorers mentioned percheles, or corn cribs on pilings, numbering up to 700 in a single field, each holding 30-45 bushels of food (Denevan 1966). In northern Florida in 1539, Hernando de Soto’s army passed through numerous fields of maize, beans, and squash, their main source of provisions; in one sector, “great fields . . . were spread out as far as the eye could see across two leagues of the plains” (Garcilaso de la Vega 1980, also see Dobyns 1983).

It is difficult to obtain a reliable overview from such descriptions. Aside from possible exaggeration, Europeans tended not to write about field size, production, or technology. More useful are various forms of relict fields and field features that persist for centuries and can still be recognized, measured, and excavated today. These extant features, including terraces, irrigation works, raised fields, sunken fields, drainage ditches, dams, reservoirs, diversion walls, and field borders number in the millions and are distributed throughout the Americas (Denevan 1980; see also Doolittle and Whitmore and Turner, this volume). For example, about 500,000 ha of abandoned raised fields survive in the San Jorge Basin of northern Colombia (Plazas and Falchetti 1987), and at least 600,000 ha of terracing, mostly of prehistoric origin, occur in the Peruvian Andes (Denevan 1988). There are 19,000 ha of visible raised fields in just the sustaining area of Tiwanaku at Lake Titicaca (Kolata 1991) and there were about 12,000 ha of chinampas (raised fields) around the Aztec capital of TenochtitlAn (Sanders, et al. 1979). Complex canal systems on the north coast of Peru and in the Salt River Valley in Arizona irrigated more land in prehistory than is cultivated today. About 175 sites of Indian garden beds, up to several hundred acres each, have been reported in Wisconsin (Gartner 1992). These various remnant fields probably represent less than 25 percent of what once existed, most being buried under sediment or destroyed by erosion, urbanization, plowing, and bulldozing. On the other hand, an inadequate effort has been made to search for ancient fields. …

The Built Landscape


The Spaniards and other Europeans were impressed by large flourishing Indian cities such as Tenochtitlán, Quito, and Cuzco, and they took note of the extensive ruins of older, abandoned cities such as Cahokia, Teotihuacan, Tikal, Chan Chan, and Tiwanaku (Harcloy 1968). Most of these cities contained more than 50,000 people. Less notable, or possibly more taken for granted, was rural settlement-small villages of a few thousand or a few hundred people, hamlets of a few families, and dispersed farmsteads. The numbers and locations of much of this settlement will never be known. With the rapid decline of native populations, the abandonment of houses and entire villages and the decay of perishable materials quickly obscured sites, especially in the tropical lowlands. …


James Parsons (1985) has suggested that: “An apparent mania for earth moving,” landscape engineering on a grand scale runs as a thread through much of New World prehistory. Large quantities of both earth and stone were transferred to create various raised and sunken features, such as agricultural landforms, settlement and ritual mounds, and causeways.

Mounds of different shapes and sizes were constructed throughout the Americas for temples, burials, settlement, and as effigies. The stone pyramids of Mexico and the Andes are well known, but equal monuments of earth were built in the Amazon, the Midwest U.S., and elsewhere. The Mississippian period complex of 104 mounds at Cahokia near East St. Louis supported 30,000 people; the largest, Monk’s Mound, is currently 30.5 m high and covers 6.9 ha. (Fowler 1989). Cahokia was the largest settlement north of the Rio Grande until surpassed by New York City in 1775. An early survey estimated “at least 20,000 conical, linear, and effigy mounds” in Wisconsin (Stout 1911). Overall, there must have been several hundred thousand artificial mounds in the Midwest and South. De Soto described such features still in use in 1539 (Silverberg 1968). Thousands of settlement and other mounds dot the savanna landscape of Mojos in Bolivia (Denevan 1966). At the mouth of the Amazon on Marajó Island, one complex of forty habitation mounds contained more than 10,000 people; one of these mounds is 20 m high while another is 90 ha in area (Roosevelt 1991).

Roads, Causeways, and Trails

Large numbers of people and settlements necessitated extensive systems of overland travel routes to facilitate administration, trade, warfare, and social interaction (Hyslop 1984; Trombold 1991). Only hints of their former prominence survive. Many were simple traces across deserts or narrow paths cut into forests. A suggestion as to the importance of Amazon forest trails is the existence of more than 500 km of trail maintained by a single Kayapo village today (Posey 1985). Some prehistoric footpaths were so intensively used for so long that they were incised into the ground and are still detectable, as has recently been described in Costa Rica (Sheets and Sever 1991).

Improved roads, at times stone-lined and drained, were constructed over great distances in the realms of the high civilizations. The Inca road network is estimated to have measured about 40,000 km, extending from southern Colombia to central Chile (Hyslop 1984). Prehistoric causeways (raised roads) were built in the tropical lowlands (Denevan 1991); one Maya causeway is 100 km long, and there are more than 1,600 km of causeways in the Lianos de Mojos. Humboldt reported large prehistoric causeways in the Orinoco Llanos. Ferdinand Columbus described roads on Puerto Rico in 1493. Gaspar de Carvajal, traveling down the Amazon with Orellana in 1541, reported “highways” penetrating the forest from river bank villages. Joseph de Acosta (1880) in 1590 said that between Peru and Brazil, there were “ways as much beaten as those betwixt Salamanca and Valladolid.” Prehistoric roads in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico are described in Trombold (1991). Some routes were so well established and located that they have remained roads to this day.


A strong case can be made for significant environmental recovery and reduction of cultural features by the late eighteenth century as a result of Indian population decline. Henry Thoreau (1849) believed, based on his reading of William Wood, that the New England forests of 1633 were more open, more park-like, with more berries and more wildlife, than Thoreau observed in 1855. Cronon (1983), Pyne (1982), Silver (1990), Martin (1978), and Williams (1989) all maintain that the eastern forests recovered and filled in as a result of Indian depopulation, field abandonment, and reduction in burning. While probably correct, these writers give few specific examples, so further research is needed. …

As agricultural fields changed to scrub and forest, earthworks were grown over. All the raised fields in Yucatán and South America were abandoned. A large portion of the agricultural terraces in the Americas were abandoned in the early colonial period (Donkin 1979). In the Colca Valley of Peru, measurement on air photos indicates 61 percent terrace abandonment (Denevan 1988). Societies vanished or declined everywhere and whole villages with them. The degree to which settlement features were swallowed up by vegetation, sediment, and erosion is indicated by the difficulty of finding them today. Machu Picchu, a late prehistoric site, was not rediscovered until 1911. …


In 1492, Indian activity had modified vegetation and wildlife, caused erosion, and created earthworks, roads, and settlements throughout the Americas. This may be obvious, but the human imprint was much more ubiquitous and enduring than is usually realized. The historical evidence is ample, as are data from surviving earthworks and archaeology. And much can be inferred from present human impacts. The weight of evidence suggests that Indian populations were large, not only in Mexico and the Andes, but also in seemingly unattractive habitats such as the rainforests of Amazonia, the swamps of Mojos, and the deserts of Arizona. …

The pristine myth cannot be laid at the feet of Columbus. While he spoke of “Paradise,” his was clearly a humanized paradise. He described Hispaniola and Tortuga as densely populated and “completely cultivated like the countryside around Cordoba” (Colón 1976). He also noted that “the islands are not so thickly wooded as to be impassable,” suggesting openings from clearing and burn ng (Columbus 1961).

The roots of the pristine myth lie in part with early observers unaware of human impacts that may be obvious to scholars today, particularly for vegetation and wildlife. But even many earthworks such as raised fields have only recently been discovered (Denevan 1966; 1980). Equally important, most of our eyewitness descriptions of wilderness and empty lands come from a later time, particularly 1750-1850 when interior lands began to be explored and occupied by Europeans. By 1650, Indian populations in the hemisphere had been reduced by about 90 percent, while by 1750 European numbers were not yet substantial and settlement had only begun to expand. As a result, fields had been abandoned while settlements vanished, forests recovered, and savannas retreated. The landscape did appear to be a sparsely populated wilderness. This is the image conveyed by Parkman in the nineteenth century, Bakeless in 1950, and Shetler as recently as 1991. There was some-European impact, of course, but it was localized. After 1750 and especially after 1850, populations greatly expanded, resources were more intensively exploited, and European modification of the environment accelerated, continuing to the present.

It is possible to conclude not only that “the virgin forest was not encountered in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; [but that] it was invented in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries” (Pyne 1982). However, “paradoxical as it may seem, there was undoubtedly much more ‘forest primeval’ in 1850 than in 1650″ (Rostlund 1957). Thus the “invention” of an earlier wilderness is in part understandable and is not simply a deliberate creation which ennobled the American enterprise, as suggested by Bowden (1992). In any event, while pre-European landscape alteration has been demonstrated previously including by several geographers, the case has mainly been made for vegetation and mainly for eastern North America. As shown here, the argument is also applicable to most of the rest of the New World, including the humid tropics, and involves much more than vegetation. …

[F]or most regions for the next 250 years or so, and for some regions right up to the present time. American flora, fauna, and landscape were slowly Europeanized after 1492, but before that they had already been Indianized. “It is upon this imprint that the more familiar Euro-American landscape was grafted, rather than created anew” (Butzer 1990). What does all this mean for protectionist tendencies today? Much of what is protected or proposed to be protected from human disturbance had native people present, and environmental modification occurred accordingly and in part is still detectable.

The pristine image of 1492 seems to be a myth, then, an image more applicable to 1750, following Indian decline, although recovery had only been partial by that date. There is some substance to this argument, and it should hold up under the scrutiny of further investigation of the considerable evidence available, both written and in the ground.

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