Imperfect Balance

Imperfect Balance: Landscape Transformations in the Pre-Columbian Americas

DAVID L. LENTZ Editor
Copyright Date: 2000
Pages: 788
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/lent11156
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    Imperfect Balance
    Book Description:

    We often envision the New World before the arrival of the Europeans as a land of pristine natural beauty and undisturbed environments. However, David Lentz offers an alternative view by detailing the impact of native cultures on these ecosystems prior to their contact with Europeans. Drawing on a wide range of experts from the fields of paleoclimatology, historical ecology, paleontology, botany, geology, conservation science, and resource management, this book unlocks the secret of how the Western Hemisphere's indigenous inhabitants influenced and transformed their natural environment.

    A rare combination of collaborators uncovers the changes that took place in North America, Mexico, Central America, the Andes, and Amazonia. Each section of the book has been comprehensively arranged so that a botanical description of the natural vegetation of the region is coupled with a set of case studies outlining local human influences. From modifications of vegetation, to changes in soil, wildlife, microclimate, hydrology, and the land surface itself, this collection addresses one of the great issues of our time: the human modification of the earth.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-50551-2
    Subjects: Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, Anthropology, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Tables and Figures
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. List of Contributors
    (pp. xv-xvi)
  5. FOREWORD
    (pp. xvii-xx)
    William M. Denevan

    A new scholarly debate has emerged at the end of the twentieth century, although its roots are much earlier. The magnitude of human impacts on the “natural” environment today is staggering, life threatening for many species, even for groups of our own kind. But what about in the past? Did people substantially change the environment in pre-European or preindustrial times? For the Western Hemisphere, some scholars believe that such changes prior to 1492 were relatively insignificant, except locally. Others believe that most of the continent was no longer pristine, no longer a wilderness, at the time of Columbus, and that,...

  6. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. xxi-xxiv)
  7. 1 INTRODUCTION: Definitions and Conceptual Underpinnings
    (pp. 1-12)
    DAVID L. LENTZ

    The myth that Europeans “discovered” America and arrived upon a virgin land has lingered in the Western psyche for centuries. For many early explorers and writers, the Native American imprint was transparent; the forests were undisturbed, the land unplowed, and the mountains untraversed. Somehow through the veil of ethnic hubris, Western scholars have resisted providing an accurate appraisal of the effect of indigenous cultural developments on the American biota. This underestimation of Native American culture has a long history in Western thought, as first evidenced by the Mound Builder debate of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (Fagan 1998: 184–187;...

  8. 2 CLIMATE CHANGE IN THE NORTHERN AMERICAN TROPICS AND SUBTROPICS SINCE THE LAST ICE AGE: Implications for Environment and Culture
    (pp. 13-38)
    DAVID A. HODELL, MARK BRENNER and JASON H. CURTIS

    Climate change during the past 20,000 years affected both the environments and civilizations of the Americas. The last glaciation marked the arrival of humans into the New World, and in the last 3,500 years, many advanced cultures arose, flourished, and ultimately collapsed within the context of Holocene climate variability. Here we review the history of climate change in the northern American tropics and subtropics between ca. 10 and 30ºN from the last glacial maximum (ca. 20,000 years) to the present. We cite the Classic Maya civilization as an example of the complex interplay among culture, climate, and environment and discuss...

  9. 3 VEGETATION IN THE FLORISTIC REGIONS OF NORTH AND CENTRAL AMERICA
    (pp. 39-88)
    ANDREW M. GRELLER

    In treating so vast and complex an area as North and Central America, it was necessary to make decisions about the depth of detail that any one region would receive. Those decisions were made from the perspective of an anglophone North American. The treatment of Mexico relies mostly on Rzedowski (1981), whose monumental study of the Mexican flora is a model for all vegetation reviews. New information from Central America has come mainly from Costa Rica, which country marks the end of extensive influence of the Holarctic flora, being covered by tropical vegetation except for the highest peaks. The West...

  10. 4 ANTHROPOCENTRIC FOOD WEBS IN THE PRECOLUMBIAN AMERICAS
    (pp. 89-120)
    DAVID L. LENTZ

    The greatest environmental impact brought about by ancient Americans revolved around their interaction with domesticated organisms, mostly plants, that were incorporated into highly interconnected trophic webs with humans as primary consumers. A trophic web is a set of populations whose interactions are intensely linked and act as a subunit of a larger community, with only loose connections to other subunits (Putnam 1994:40). The evolution of anthropocentric trophic webs had five profound effects on the Pre-columbian landscape: (1) they greatly extended the range and enlarged populations of organisms within the human-centered trophic webs; (2) species, such as ruderals and vermin, that...

  11. 5 PREHISPANIC AGRICULTURAL SYSTEMS IN THE BASIN OF MEXICO
    (pp. 121-146)
    EMILY MCCLUNG DE TAPIA

    Agriculture was the fundamental component of the support systems that sustained prehistoric urban communities in the Basin of Mexico, from the Late Formative center of Cuicuilco through to the end of Late Postclassic Tenochtitlán (table 5.1). However, most of the available evidence regarding specific agricultural practices comes from sixteenth-century ethnohistorical and historical documents and ethnographic descriptions of traditional practices in different regions of Mesoamerica. Although some continuity between traditional practices and early Colonial period practices—roughly four centuries ago—may exist, it cannot simply be assumed that such continuity stretches back as far as would be necessary to develop a...

  12. 6 PREHISPANIC WATER MANAGEMENT AND AGRICULTURAL INTENSIFICATION IN MEXICO AND VENEZUELA: Implications for Contemporary Ecological Planning
    (pp. 147-178)
    CHARLES S. SPENCER

    In this essay I examine three archaeological cases that document how Prehispanic agriculturalists intensified production by coming up with workable solutions to water supply problems. In Mexico, the inhabitants of two regions in the arid southern highlands constructed irrigation systems that marshaled scarce, seasonally available runoff from mountain slopes for use in nearby agricultural fields; in both regions, agriculture would have been vastly less productive if farmers had relied upon local rainfall alone. In western Venezuela, Prehispanic people dealt with an overabundance of water during the six-month rainy season by constructing drained-field systems that allowed for longer and much more...

  13. 7 STABILITY AND INSTABILITY IN PREHISPANIC MAYA LANDSCAPES
    (pp. 179-202)
    NICHOLAS DUNNING and TIMOTHY BEACH

    When Spaniards first arrived on the shores of the Yucatán Peninsula in the early 1500s they encountered a civilization already 2,500 years old. This landscape was much altered by centuries of human activity including alternating periods of relative stability and instability. Like much of the New World, the Maya Lowlands were far removed from their pristine or prehuman past (Denevan 1992). Despite severe population declines accompanying the collapse of Classic Maya civilization between A.D. 800 and 1000, population was again growing and expanding in many regions by A.D. 1500. Even regions largely abandoned since A.D. 800 still showed many effects...

  14. 8 PRECOLUMBIAN SILVICULTURE AND INDIGENOUS MANAGEMENT OF NEOTROPICAL FORESTS
    (pp. 203-224)
    CHARLES M. PETERS

    According to most accounts, the practice of silviculture was first introduced to the tropics in the late 1800s by colonial foresters working in Asia. German foresters drew up management plans for Burmese teak as early as 1860 (U Kyaw Zan 1953), and the first tropical forestry training center was founded in 1878 in Dehra Dun, India (Lamprecht 1989). British foresters working in Peninsula Malaysia around the turn of the century developed silvicultural prescriptions to enhance the productivity of Palaquium gutta, an important latex-producing tree in local dipterocarp forests (Wyatt-Smith 1963), and the first textbook of tropical silviculture (Troup’s three-volume Silviculture...

  15. 9 NATIVE FARMING SYSTEMS AND ECOSYSTEMS IN THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER VALLEY
    (pp. 225-250)
    GAYLE J. FRITZ

    The Mississippi River is about 2,300 miles long, and the history of native agriculture in its valley goes back more than 4,000 years. Given this considerable range of both space and time, the development of many different farming systems could be expected. When Europeans first entered the valley, native farmers from Lake Itasca to Lake Pontchartrain grew maize, beans, squashes, and sunflowers as their primary crops, but agricultural strategies varied significantly due to both cultural and environmental factors. The archaeological record shows that differences between the northern, central, and southern reaches of the valley were even more marked in the...

  16. 10 HOHOKAM IMPACTS ON SONORAN DESERT ENVIRONMENT
    (pp. 251-280)
    SUZANNE K. FISH

    Current archaeological interest in the environmental legacy of past societies reflects an intellectual heritage in the social sciences that came to the fore with the influential publication Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth (Thomas 1956). In recent years, cultural practices aimed at selectively manipulating plant species and modifying vegetational structure have been highlighted in studies of foraging societies and gained recognition as key processes in the transition from hunting and gathering to farming economies (e.g., Hillman and Harris 1989; Keeley 1995; Smith 1992). Archaeological studies of ancient agriculture confirm it as foremost among human endeavors that transform...

  17. 11 VEGETATION OF THE TROPICAL ANDES: An Overview
    (pp. 281-310)
    JAMES L. LUTEYN and STEVEN P. CHURCHILL

    The mythical El Dorado of the New World tropics, as first conceived, was correctly thought to exist in the highlands; however, it was not gold, but green. The Andes harbor one of the richest terrestrial biota on earth. This region does, or at least did, contain the greatest plant diversity found in the tropics and possibly, for the size of the area, the world.

    The Andes of South America stretch over 70 degrees of latitude, some 8,000 km, from Venezuela to the southern tip of the continent, representing the longest mountain range in the world spanning more vegetation types than...

  18. 12 THE LAKE TITICACA BASIN: A Precolumbian Built Landscape
    (pp. 311-356)
    CLARK L. ERICKSON

    The landscapes of the Americas hold a material record of a long and complex history of human transformation of the environment. As William Denevan (1992) has pointed out, “the myth of the pristine environment” has long dominated the literature on the environments of the Americas. The human impact on the land before the arrival of Europeans was so profound and at such a massive scale that it could be argued few, if any, of the environments of the Americas occupied by humans past and present could be considered natural or pristine. Humans have cut, cleared, and burned forests for agriculture...

  19. 13 ANDEAN LAND USE AT THE CUSP OF HISTORY
    (pp. 357-390)
    TERENCE N. D’ALTROY

    Western South America is a land of astonishing natural diversity and striking beauty. The region’s climate and topography combine to give rise to both the world’s driest desert and permanent glaciers on the tallest peaks in the Americas, compressed within a narrow strip along the continent’s margin (figure 13.1). Its environmental complexity results from the juxtaposition of the Andes mountains and the Pacific’s frigid Humboldt current, coupled with cyclical patterns in the equatorial trade winds. We can gain a sense of the natural diversity, described in greater detail by Luteyn and Churchill (this volume), by envisioning a transect from the...

  20. 14 LOWLAND VEGETATION OF TROPICAL SOUTH AMERICA: An Overview
    (pp. 391-454)
    DOUGLAS C. DALY and JOHN D. MITCHELL

    Tropical lowland South America boasts a diversity of vegetation cover as impressive, and often as bewildering, as its diversity of plant species. In this essay, we attempt to describe the major types of vegetation cover in this vast region as they occurred in Precolumbian times and outline the conditions that support them. Examining the large-scale phytogeographic regions characterized by each major cover type (figure 14.1), we provide basic information on geology, geological history, topography, and climate; describe variants of physiognomy (vegetation structure) and geography; discuss transitions; and examine some floristic patterns and affinities within and among these regions. We mention...

  21. 15 THE LOWER AMAZON: A Dynamic Human Habitat
    (pp. 455-492)
    ANNA C. ROOSEVELT

    The Amazon has been portrayed as a pristine and ancient habitat vulnerable to destruction by modern civilization. Native Amazonians are pictured as Stone Age peoples living in harmony with the ancient forest. Recently, such models have been weakened by evidence of significant changes in environment and human adaptation before the European conquest of the Americas. One implication of the evidence is that ancient Amazonians had considerable impacts on the habitat in areas adjacent to their settlements. Some distinctive forest patterns once thought purely natural now may be seen as having been influenced by past human activities.

    In this essay, I...

  22. SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
    (pp. 493-506)
    DAVID L. LENTZ

    From the preceding essays we can draw a number of conclusions regarding the historical ecology of the Precolumbian Americas. One inescapable conclusion is that the New World is and has been for some time an area of incredible biodiversity, particularly in the Neotropics but also in the varied habitats of temperate North America. Another conclusion, based on an expanding corpus of paleoethnobotanical and archaeological evidence, is that much of the New World was shaped by human influences long before Columbus made landfall. In many areas anthropogenic landscape modifications were significant, often resulting from the use of fire as a game...

  23. INDEX
    (pp. 507-548)