This is an older article from 2002, but really interesting, awesome stuff. Since this bullshit Discoverer’s/Columbus Day is coming up, it’s appropriate to consider what the “New World” was really like before he showed up: 1491
I found it a bit odd when I read here that some researchers think of the new theories about large pre-Columbus native populations as “willful misinterpretation of data and a perverse kind of political correctness.” It makes no sense to characterize these theories as “perversely politically correct”; too often people in power claim any research or theories that elevate oppressed people to be dangerous or illegitimate, only because their interests are vested in the dominant interpretation. Certainly there are political implications for these new theories, but just because they cast the dominant, imperialistic narrative in a negative light does not invalidate them. Anthropologists are a group, just like many others, who have been influenced by that ideologies that emerged since the papal bull of 1494, defining terms and geography in terms that legitimize oppression and land theft. While it may be true, as one scientist comments in the article, that to make an estimate of original population is near impossible, it is also irrelevant. What is important is that civilizations thrived, and the knowledge of how they did is what counts today.
The research on the Amazon in particular was incredibly interesting. The “save the rainforest” environmental campaign was supported in part by research like that of Meggers and Evans, who studied the Marajoara on the giant Amazonian island and concluded the Amazon’s soil was too poor to support large communities. But later research now shifts the reason why protecting the Amazon is important. Roosevelt did a re-excavation of the same island site and concluded that tribes has lived in the area for thousands of years and actually improved the growth and biodiversity of the area. Soil geographers also found the rich terra preta soil created by those human civilizations actually makes up about 12 percent of the Amazon today. Because the soil regenerates itself and resists depletion, with more research the bio-diversification practices of native people can be taken to places like Africa to transform the regions with poor agricultural soil.
This final section of the article offered a very intriguing point of view toward the natural landscapes of pre-Columbus America. While I have read plenty about indigenous peoples’ environmentally balanced living practices, I had not always necessarily connected that to the idea of humans being a keystone species in the positive sense. When I think of humans as a keystone species, I usually think of only the negative sense of the impact of industrial practices. It was refreshing to take the perspective of human beings as simply another organism sprung from the evolution of the planet, rather than a terrible anomaly dropped on the earth to decide either to destroy or live harmoniously with it. All other species on the planet essentially behave in ways that will benefit themselves and contribute to their own survival, but in doing so actually maintain balance rather than destroy it. Human beings are still capable of doing the same. Human societies created rich soil, diversified ecosystems, and created grasslands for game that created an abundant ecosystem for all species. And as the article explains, these findings do not give a blank card for developers and capitalists to do whatever they like, but rather requires human societies to give precedence to the creative, sustainable practices of native peoples to maintain the ecosystems on which we all depend.