Before Columbus

There’s quite a debate going on about what the Americas – and in particular the Amazon – looked like before Columbus arrived. This has been the subject of a bestseller entitled 1491, whose main arguments are summarized by the author, Charles Mann, here. It is always dangerous to simplify academic controversies as being between two diametrically opposing camps, but I’ll do it anyway. One side thinks that population levels were high in the Americas in pre-Columbian times, and that even the Amazon was essentially a gigantic, closely managed orchard, hence talk of the “pristine myth.” The other side thinks that the real myth is that of a large, widespread human population in the Amazon. This has important practical implications because, inevitably, some have seized on the debate to argue that the Amazon could be more heavily exploited today, because it was in the past.

Coincidentally, there are stories today which summarize papers coming down on opposing sides of this argument.

According to this piece, Dolores R. Piperno of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama and National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, “found evidence of widespread fire use for land-clearing by pre-Colombian populations in Latin America” when she reconstructed vegetation patterns and fire histories from pollen, phytolyth and charcoal records.

Noting the vast body of research indicates the existence of large, dense, sedentary populations in the Amazon, Piperno implies that conservationists should come to terms with the fact that tropical forests have been cleared in the past as they are being cleared today, and then move forward with effective strategies for preserving what remains.

A different view emerges in this discussion of the work of Mark Bush of the Florida Institute of Technology in Melbourne. He looked at charcoal and pollen records at two Amazonian lakes and found that

…rather than being widely dispersed, people living in the Amazon most likely clustered near the good places, and that overall population numbers were likely not as high as the top estimates of pre-Columbian people.

This will run and run.

2 Replies to “Before Columbus”

  1. We have been working on this problem in the Maya forest. (Hopefully a paper will soon be out.) If the Amazon is considered ‘well-populated’, imagine the Maya lowlands, where you can’t kick a rock without uncovering a human structure. We come down on the side of a fairly dense population, during about 22 centuries and an extensive remodelling of the forest. But we do not agree that “tropical forests have been cleared in the past as they are being cleared today”. Even in the times of heavy use, the tropical forest remained fundamentally a forest, a complex constructed landscape with primary and secondary forests forming a matrix of agricultural lands. Despite what several researchers claim, there is just no evidence for widespread clearing of the Maya forest–even during the so-called ‘collapse’–until the mid-20th century when extensive cattle grazing was promoted by international development agencies. “Before Colombus”, American agriculture was agroforestry, and involved continual regeneration of forest and biodiversity. This is what ‘conservationists’ need to accept–continual regeneration of forested landscape–not just ‘preserving what is left’. Mesoamerican agroforestry traditions still survive that could inform such a strategy.

  2. Thanks for your contribution, that characterization of pre-Columbian agriculture as “continual regeneration” in an agroforestry setting is very revealing.

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