Before Columbus: The Americas of 1491

Charles C. Mann and Rebecca Stefoff. 2009. Before Columbus: The Americas of 1491. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, Simon & Schuster.

Available [here]

This book should be in every school.

The study of historical human influences on the environment is hampered by stubborn adherence to myths and falsehoods developed in childhood. Schools teach that Native Americans were few, savage, and insignificant wandering nomads who lived in a wilderness before Europeans arrived to tame the Americas.

Charles C. Mann’s 2005 bestseller, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus [here], exploded many of those myths. He essayed the new, developing ideas and evidence regarding pre-Columbian America indicating that the Western Hemisphere was populated by millions of people living in civilizations older and more advanced than those of the invading Europeans.

Now Mann and co-author Rebecca Stefoff have adapted 1491 into a book for school children. Before Columbus: The Americas of 1491 is a gorgeous “coffee table” book filled with vibrant pictures and a text that is exciting and understandable for younger scholars.

Teachers and parents take note. Don’t let your kids grow up to be ignorant of their roots. The landscapes we live in have been cultural landscapes, shaped by humanity, for thousands of years. The heritage of place is your heritage and that of your children.

Part One of Before Columbus: The Americas of 1491 examines the question “How Old was the New World?” Archaeologists keep pushing the date back, but without a doubt human beings were living throughout the Americas 10,000 years ago (8,000 BC). The first cities may have been along the Peruvian coast. The pyramids at Huaricanga are at least 5,500 years old. The residents also built irrigation canals to water cotton fields, from which they made nets to harvest fish. Ancient mariners sailed far out into the Pacific to net anchovies, sardines, and other fish. Their cultural stamp (the distinctive gods carved on gourds) can be seen in rock carvings and temples crafted thousands of years later at Lake Titicaca, the cradle of Incan civilization.

Part Two asks “Why Did Europe Succeed?” and includes four chapters on “The Great Meeting” (Cortez and the Aztecs at Tenochtitlan), “Long, Long Ago” (the first Americans, the PaleoIndians, and Monte Verde in Chile), “Extinction” (the demise of the megafauna, including mammoths), and “Disease-Free Paradise? (the impact of European disease on the Native Americans).”

Part Three examines “Were the Americas really a Wilderness?” It’s chapters include “Amazonia” with discussion of the fruit and nut orchards found across the Amazon Basin and the anthropogenic soils called terra preta. “Land of Fire” discusses the way in which Indians maintained a living anthropogenic mosaic of prairies, savannas, and open, park-like forests, principally through the use of controlled burning. In “The Created Wilderness” the authors explain how those human-shaped landscapes were abandoned when the Indian populations nearly disappeared following the introduction of Old World diseases.

We cannot plan for the future if we do not understand the past. Forests cannot be cared for, and the desired future conditions cannot be achieved, if we do not have a firm grasp on how our forests developed in the first place.

Mann and Stefoff seek to instruct our youth with the truth, so that as adults they can make informed judgments about environmental stewardship.

Buy this book. Better yet, buy a dozen copies and donate them to your local schools. Raise the consciousness about the distant past so that our coming future is guided by knowledge instead of myth.

4 Mar 2010, 12:04am
Cultural Landscapes Fire History The Wilderness Myth
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Aboriginal Use of Fire: Are There Any “Natural” Plant Communities?

Gerald W. Williams. 2002. Aboriginal Use of Fire: Are There Any “Natural” Plant Communities? IN Wilderness and Political Ecology: Aboriginal Land Management–Myths and Reality, Charles E. Kay and Randy T. Simmons (eds.) University of Utah Press.

Full text [here]

Selected excerpts:


Evidence for the purposeful use of fire by American Indians (also termed Native Americans, Indigenous People, and First Nations/People) in many ecosystems has been easy to document but difficult to substantiate. Commonly, many people, even researchers and ecologists, discount the fact that the American Indians greatly changed the ecosystems for their use and survival. Scientists often attribute old fire scars found in tree rings to “natural” causes, such as lightning rather than anthropogenic causes (Kilgore 1985 and Pyne 1995). However, there is a growing literature that many of the so-called “natural” fires were intentionally set. A knowledge of the Indian use of fire will understand how ecosystem conditions today have been shaped by humans in the past. The implications of restoring fire to ecosystems for management of million of acres of federal lands are profound.
The following accounts of Indian burning of ecosystems focuses on the Pacific Northwest, where some of the best documentation of Indian use of fire exists (see Appendix B). For other parts of North America, see the excellent studies by Henry Lewis (1982, 1985) on the forest areas of Canada, as well as the articles by Emily Russell (1983, 1997) and Gordon Whitney (1994) for the East (especially the northeast) and William McClain and Sherrie Elzinga (1994) for the Midwest region of the United States. Stephen Pyne’s (1982, 1995) books contain information on aboriginal people and their use of fire in North America, as well as other parts of the world.


For over 100 years there was the idea that nature could only be “natural” when left on its own. Massive landscape changes, such as caused by hurricanes or volcanoes, or even small changes like landslides caused by heavy rainfall, would, if left alone, recover to the natural “order” of nature, undisturbed, peaceful, with harmony restored. In this view, nature is wonder, filling the human body and soul with beauty and spirit of the grand works of God. Painters of the mid-1800s “Hudson River School” emphasized, through magnificent, large-scale painting, this notion of the glory and spirit of nature untamed, wild, and beautiful beyond imagination. George Perkins Marsh, in his classic book Man and Nature, originally published in 1864, set the tone for much of the conservation movement of the late 19th century and the environmental movement of the mid- to late-20th century as he wrote about the stability and resiliency of nature:

Nature, left undisturbed, so fashions her territory as to give it almost unchanging permanence of form, outline and proportion, except when shattered by geologic convulsions; and in these comparatively rare cases of derangement, she sets herself at once to repair the superficial damage and to restore, as nearly as practicable, the former aspect of her dominion (Marsh 1864: 29).

There are elements of this simplistic philosophic notion that still live on in society as a whole and especially the minds of the environmental community. The writings of the eminent conservation/environmental scholars in the last century have tended to take these idealistic and romantic, almost transcendental, notions into the realm of gut-wrenching emotion and action to save what is left of the “natural” environment. …

The last few decades, however, have seen significant changes in the ecological basis for defining nature, as well as wilderness “untrammeled by Man” (Botkin 1990). …

Human activities have also influenced and changed ecosystems. Researchers today are tending to believe that the concepts of “nature,” “natural,” and “wilderness” are human constructs and that people have been part of ecosystems since before recorded time. People, in this contemporary notion, are part of ecosystems, have evolved with ecosystems, have used parts and pieces of ecosystems for survival, and have changed portions of ecosystems for their needs:

No forests [shrublands or grasslands] are unaffected; humans have been a part of the ecosystem over the past ten centuries of major climatic change, so that all forests have developed under some kind of human influence, although its intensity has varied greatly over time and space. This influence must be accounted for as an important part of any study of forest structure and dynamics (Russell 1997: 129).

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21 Feb 2010, 8:45pm
Cultural Landscapes Fire History The Wilderness Myth Wildlife History
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How far could a squirrel travel in the treetops? A prehistory of the southern forest

Paul B. Hamel, and Edward R. Buckner 1998. How far could a squirrel travel in the treetops? A prehistory of the southern forest. Transactions of the 63rd North American Wildlife and Natural Resources conference; 1998 March 20-25; Orlando, FL. Washington, DC: Wildlife Management Institute: 309-315.

Full text [here]

Selected excerpts:


Conservation activities aimed at protecting old-growth forests; at maintaining populations of desired species groups, such as oaks (Quercus sp.), wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo), other game species or Neotropical migratory birds; and at increasing populations of endangered species, such as red-cockaded woodpeckers (Picoides borealis), Bachman’s warblers (Vermivora bachmanii), Louisiana black bears (Ursus americanus luteolus) and Tennessee coneflowers (Echinaea tennesseensis), require a target environment. This target, often viewed as the environment at some specified past time, becomes the desired future condition. If the target can be considered a stable ecosystem that is self-perpetuating under control of natural processes, the envisioned environment is a defendable “natural” target for land-use planning. If the target is not easily regarded as “natural,” but must involve cultural intervention for its appearance or persistence, the planning process must derive a target environment by some other method, one more clearly reflective of the values of the planners themselves.

Our purpose in this paper is to suggest time periods as potential candidates for the “original” or “natural”condition of the southern forest and to evaluate the forest conditions at those times in light of knowledge of past geological and cultural conditions.

The “Original” Southern Forest in 1607

A most useful starting point for characterizing the prehistory of the southern forest is the establishment of permanent English colonies in 1607. We begin there. A frequent vision of the forest, shared by authors too numerous to mention (e.g., Alverson et al. 1994) depicts relatively complete coverage of closed-canopy forest from the Atlantic Coast to the Great Plains. In this view, a squirrel, presumably a gray squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis), would have been able to move almost in a straight line from treetop to treetop across the Carolinas and Tennessee to the Mississippi River.

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Amazonian Dark Earths: Wim Sombroek’s Vision

William I. Woods (Editor), Wenceslau G. Teixeira (Editor), Johannes Lehmann (Editor), Christoph Steiner (Editor), Antoinette M.G.A. WinklerPrins (Editor), Lilian Rebellato (Editor). 2009. Amazonian Dark Earths: Wim Sombroek’s Vision. Springer; 1st edition (December 1, 2008). 504 pages. listing [here].

Review by Mike Dubrasich

A landmark book has been published on terra preta, Amazonian dark earths, the carbon-rich soils developed by ancient civilizations in what was once thought to be a pristine wilderness. Dedicated to Dutch soil scientist Wim Sombroek (1934-2003) who was the first modern investigator of terra preta, Amazonian Dark Earths: Wim Sombroek’s Vision is a compilation of the latest, cutting-edge studies in this fascinating and important multi-disciplinary field.

Amazonian soils are predominantly laterites [here], deeply weathered red clays lacking in most soil nutrients. Millions of years of rainfall have leached out everything but iron (hence the red color), silica, and aluminum. Essential plant nutrients such as calcium, phosphorus, and potassium are nearly missing. Amazon vegetation subsists on itself, the thin humus of decaying plant matter being the only source of key metallic oxides.

Except where there is terra preta, or it’s close cousin terra mulata. Terra preta is deep, rich, fertile, black soil that occurs in patches on bluffs along the Amazon and its tributaries. Terra preta is filled with charcoal, ash, mulch, bones, and pottery shards! It is potting soil made from organic matter transported to the sites in pots! These anomalous soils are anthropogenic: people made them.

[Dr. William] Denevan (2001:116–119) has argued that in pre-Columbian times the use of stone axes made long-fallow shifting cultivation very inefficient, and as result probably uncommon until the European introduction of metal axes. Previously, soil fertility must have been maintained and improved by frequent composting, mulching, and in-field burning, making semi-permanent cultivation possible with only brief fallowing. Over time these activities could have produced fertile, self-sustaining dark earths.

Dark earths may occupy 0.1% to 0.3%, or 6,000 to 18,000 km2, of forested lowland Amazonia (Sombroek and Carvalho 2002:130). Because their densities vary greatly within subregions and almost no systematic survey has been accomplished within Amazonia, variations in density projections of an order of magnitude are to be expected. The dark earths occur in a variety of climatic, geologic, and topographic situations, both along river bluffs and in the interior, with depths sometimes exceeding 2.0 m. Individual patches range from 1 ha or so to several hundred hectares. — from Chapter 1, Amazonian Dark Earths: The First Century of Reports by William I. Woods and William M. Denevan

Rather than a pristine, untrammeled, unoccupied wilderness, Amazonia has been home to people for thousands of years. The indigenous residents were agriculturalists who modified soils in order to grow corn (maize), squash, beans, fruiting palms, gourds, pineapples, cotton, arrowroot, and many other cultivated fruits, nuts, tubers, and fibers.

Terra mulata is brownish soil that generally surrounds patches of terra preta. It is not quite as rich and has fewer artifacts, and is even more widespread than terra preta. In theory, terra mulata is the accidentally improved soil adjacent to the deliberately improved soils, or else it is terra preta in the making. In either case, anthropogenically altered soils are in strong contrast to the unaltered laterites, and cover a combined area the size of France.

One of the key elements of terra preta is charcoal, lately termed “biochar”.

Vegetation actively withdraws carbon from the atmosphere and stores it as organic matter. Biochar is created when organic matter is heated without oxygen and it contains twice the carbon content of ordinary biomass (Lehmann 2007). Biochar is much more resistant to decay and can store carbon for centennial timescales (Lehmann et al. 2006). The addition of biochar to the soil was part of the creation of ADE [Amazon dark earths] (Neves et al. 2003). This has lead some to speculate on the viability of a biochar carbon sequestration industry which would reduce atmospheric greenhouse gases (Marris 2006; Sombroek et al. 2002) and improve soil fertility (Lehmann et al. 2003; Glaser and Woods 2004). — from Chapter 14, Locating Amazonian Dark Earths (ADE) Using Satellite Remote Sensing – A Possible Approach by J Thayn, KP Price, and WI Woods.

Biochar is touted as a “solution” to the global warming “problem.” I demure. But biochar is definitely a valuable soil amendment because carbon binds to and stores the metallic oxide nutrients essential to plant growth. The addition of charcoal as well as organic detritus helped to create and sustain terra preta over centuries.

Amazonian Dark Earths: Wim Sombroek’s Vision is a wonderful account of the history and science of anthropogenic soils. The book is as rich as terra preta in literary as well as scientific writing.

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9 Jan 2009, 3:24pm
Cultural Landscapes The Wilderness Myth
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Of Fates, Forests, and Futures: Myths, Epistemes, and Policy in Tropical Conservation

Susanna B. Hecht. 1993. Of Fates, Forests, and Futures: Myths, Epistemes, and Policy in Tropical Conservation. Horace Marden Albright Lecturer in Conservation. UC Berkeley College of Natural Resources

Full text [here]

Selected excerpts


In spite of increasingly strident international censure, the global rates of deforestation in the tropical world have more than doubled during the last decade (Myers 1990). This destructive pattern is well advanced in the Western Amazon. In 1980, less than 8,000 km of Rondonia’s forests had fallen. Acre’s forests were largely intact. By the end of the decade some 60,000 km, or 17% of the state of Rondonia had been cleared. In Acre - more distant, fewer roads and more politically organized - by the mid-1990s, some 5% of the lands had been deforested (FUNTAC 1990). Spurred by government colonization programs, fiscal distortions, land speculation, timber concessions, dubious land titles and the migration of almost a million peasants from southern Brazil (World Bank, 1989), forests relentlessly fell. Degraded pastures and abandoned farms soon replaced rich woodlands. Weed invasion, declines in soil fertility, and frontier economics all took their toll as colonists and ranchers pressed ever forward. …

Rapid deforestation and resource degradation are related to the ecological instability and economic peculiarities of the forms of land occupation expressed by current regional development efforts. But why such forms of land use have come to dominate the landscape leads us further to questions that lie at the heart of deforestation: how we understand it, and how we hope to halt it.

What I will do in this article is to explore some of the deeper epistemological issues that inform our models and environmental sciences of how the world unfolds in these regions. While the scientific literature, airwaves and popular culture barrage us with “explanations,” these competing, largely unexamined paradigms have policy and real-world outcomes. I will examine first two broad overarching approaches that have been instrumental in defining resources debates in the first world, how these have articulated with the scientific frameworks that have been significant in interpreting tropical forests and populations as well as their peoples. I will also discuss the emerging counter view. These will then be linked to explanations of deforestation, and their policy consequences.

The Amazon has always been a mirror to the vibrant fantasies of its observers. Any review of its history is always tremendously disconcerting because there are so many disparate versions of Amazonia, in part because the region is so enormous. But as much as it is a forest of trees, it is also in Turner’s phrase “a forest of symbols.” …

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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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