Was pre-Columbia America really wilderness?

Published August 1, 2002

As Henry Lamb mentions in the accompanying story, many environmentalists believe we should restore the land to a state of “pre-Columbian wilderness.” But was pre-Columbian America really a wilderness?

Stewart Truelsen, director of broadcast services for the American Farm Bureau Federation, points out:

Lately though, more and more scholars are attacking this myth. Some of the research was pulled together in an Atlantic Monthly article titled simply “1491.” Author Charles Mann says, “Indians were here in greater numbers than previously thought, and they imposed their will on the landscape. Columbus set foot in a hemisphere thoroughly dominated by humankind.”

One of the most important scholars writing on this topic is University of Wisconsin cultural ecologist William Denevan. In his paper “The Pristine Myth: The Landscape of the Americas in 1492,” Denevan notes, “Agricultural fields were common as were houses, towns and roads, and trails. All of these had local impacts on soil, microclimate, hydrology, and wildlife.”

Fire was an important tool the Indians used to convert forests to grassy openings … probably making them the first Americans to contribute to global warming. “Like people everywhere, Indians survived by cleverly exploiting their environment,” says Mann. “Rather than domesticating animals for meat, Indians retooled whole ecosystems to grow bumper crops of elk, deer, and bison.” In South America, they appear to have planted part of the Amazon rain forest to grow a diverse assortment of trees, fruits, nuts, and palms.

Mann concludes that if environmentalists want to return America to its pre-1492 condition, then it is not a wilderness they are seeking, but what was perhaps the world’s largest garden. Pristine America, a wilderness untrammeled by man, may all be part of our folklore.

For more information …

The Native Population of the Americas in 1492, edited by William M. Denevan, is available for $19.95 through Amazon.com at http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0299134342/theheartlandinst.

Additional information about Native Americans’ impact on the environment is also available through PolicyBot, The Heartland Institute’s free online research service. Search the topic/subtopic combination Environment/Native Americans to find such documents as “The Indian Romance” (American Enterprise Institute, 1995, 2pp.); “Dances with Myths” (Reason, February 1997, 6pp.); and “Conservative: Native American Style” (PERC, July 1996, 16pp.).