1491, ANOTHER PLUG - Complications Ensue
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Monday, May 22, 2006

I finished 1491. I'd recommend this book to anyone. It really gets you thinking about pre-Contact (or pre-Impact) American culture. The author makes a compelling case that most of the "primeval" forests in both North and South America that seemed so bounteous to the Europeans were in fact tree farms: the Haudenosee (Iroquois), for example, planted hickory trees everywhere, and did their best to hunt out all the animals that ate hickory nuts. The author also suggests that the massive herds of bison and swarms of passenger pigeons the Euros saw were not natural; they were population explosions after disease wiped out 95% of their principal predators, i.e. man.

There are interesting implications for the notion of "wildlife." I.e. if we are trying to restore the natural parks to their "primeval" condition, are we trying to restore them to a merely pre-Contact state or to a pre-human state? Because the case is made that pre-Contact, most of the American wilderness was carefully managed through controlled use of fire (creating the prairies and keeping down forest underbrush in the East) and hunting.

I'm not an anthropologist and I'm sure there are more caveats to this claim than the author put in his book. But the book is a real eye-opener.

3 Comments:

Sounds interesting. Might have to pick it up.

By Blogger Mackey, at 11:45 PM  

Hey Alex,

Have you read 'Guns, Germs and Steel' by Jared Diamond? If you enjoyed 1491, you may enjoy this one. The central conceit of the book is that human cultures have been shaped by their environment and have in turn those cultures have shaped their environment. e.g. the nomadic lifestyles of the Koori and their particular kind of fish farming etc.

By Blogger stu willis, at 3:56 AM  

If the subject interests you, you might want to consider William Cronon's 'Changes in the Land', a fascinating, academic-but-readale reconstruction of native and early European colonial land-use practices, and how they affected cross-cultural perceptions.

The one example from that book that sticks best in my mind was a tribe that every few years set fire to a huge swath of the forest - the local colonists, used to an agricultural cultivation model thought this to be a spectacular misuse of resources, reasoning that the tribe were such bad custodians of the land as to forfeit any claim to it. Cronon pointed out, however, that this appeared to make perfect sense in the local model of managed foraging, thinning out the forest and creating an ideal environment for deer and other prey animals.

By Blogger Kane, at 7:44 PM  

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