1491 – Before it became the New World, the Western Hemisphere was vastly more populous and sophisticated than has been thought—an altogether more salubrious place to live at the time than, say, Europe. New evidence of both the extent of the population and its agricultural advancement leads to a remarkable conjecture: the Amazon rain forest may be largely a human artifact

The Amazon rain forest as a ‘human artifact’? What kind of logical reasoning could guide us down a path where that became a plausible conjecture? At least that’s what I thought for ages, as I looked at the tagline of this longform piece that languished in my Pocket queue for months and kept skipping it over. However, I picked it up this morning, and found that two interesting assumptions were challenged – assumptions about the age of exploration and afterward that I had and that I think much of the Western world does too.

From a young age I learned these assumptions. One was that while there were incredibly sophisticated native peoples, including the Iroquois that I learned about in grade school – the local native peoples near that we all learn about in New York state – and the great civilizations of the Aztec, Olmec, Maya, Inca, and others, the landscape encountered by the European explorers was largely untamed by society. While Europe was more dominated by man, there were vast grasslands, forests, and jungles in the New World with little habitation and untouched by human influence. The common trope is that the New World was much more natural, and that native peoples did not have the same destructive influence on their landscape as their Old World brethren.

The second assumption is similar, but more pertinent to the contemporary world, and deals more about how we think about ecosystems – when we consider and study nature, we often consider human influence as alien to nature’s workings. We consider the landscape to be harmonious before humans have a chance to influence it, and when we do it is not seen as part of the ecosystem itself. Today, that is a key assumption of the environmental movement (among others) that seek to minimize our influence so that nature can return to its normal course and continue to propagate for future generations.

These two manifest themselves in how Western society has viewed the opening of the New World. As exploration, but also as destruction both of the landscape and the societies that called it home. This research, and the current thinking on the scale of the population pre-Columbus, drastically changes this calculus. It seems the human suffering might have been far greater, and the environmental changes more subtle – more of degree and philosophy.

Some of the passages really struck me, and helped to really make me think about the world of 1491.

At the invitation of a friend, he spent a few months in northern Mexico, which is full of Spanish-era missions. There he poked through the crumbling leather-bound ledgers in which Jesuits recorded local births and deaths. Right away he noticed how many more deaths there were. The Spaniards arrived, and then Indians died—in huge numbers, at incredible rates. It hit him, Dobyns told me recently, “like a club right between the eyes.”

Nearly 100 million people may have lived in pre-Hispanic America – what an incredible statistic (and just crazy that estimates swing on orders of magnitude). I want to look up what the latest thinking is and what the estimates are now. It may be that we have vastly underestimated the scale of the civilizations that were in this land. When I visited Teotihuacan, it was an impressive reminded of how much fades with time. Incredibly basic details of earlier societies are missing and unknown to us. There is so much of history that we do not know.

Like people everywhere, Indians survived by cleverly exploiting their environment. Europeans tended to manage land by breaking it into fragments for farmers and herders. Indians often worked on such a grand scale that the scope of their ambition can be hard to grasp. They created small plots, as Europeans did (about 1.5 million acres of terraces still exist in the Peruvian Andes), but they also reshaped entire landscapes to suit their purposes. A principal tool was fire, used to keep down underbrush and create the open, grassy conditions favorable for game. Rather than domesticating animals for meat, Indians retooled whole ecosystems to grow bumper crops of elk, deer, and bison. The first white settlers in Ohio found forests as open as English parks—they could drive carriages through the woods. Along the Hudson River the annual fall burning lit up the banks for miles on end; so flashy was the show that the Dutch in New Amsterdam boated upriver to goggle at the blaze like children at fireworks. In North America, Indian torches had their biggest impact on the Midwestern prairie, much or most of which was created and maintained by fire. Millennia of exuberant burning shaped the plains into vast buffalo farms. When Indian societies disintegrated, forest invaded savannah in Wisconsin, Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska, and the Texas Hill Country. Is it possible that the Indians changed the Americas more than the invading Europeans did? “The answer is probably yes for most regions for the next 250 years or so” after Columbus, William Denevan wrote, “and for some regions right up to the present time.”

The scale of potential ecological changes wrought by native peoples caught me a little off guard, just because it is such a different conception of man’s interaction with nature. Managing environments at that level of scale is an impressive feat, and difficult for me to grasp. It is an elegant way of surviving more symbiotically with nature, in a way that is more self-reflective and aware of our presence and potential to shape the environment. It is very compelling, although I don’t know if I can really wrap my head around the Amazon being artificially reinforced / created.

Guided by the pristine myth, mainstream environmentalists want to preserve as much of the world’s land as possible in a putatively intact state. But “intact,” if the new research is correct, means “run by human beings for human purposes.” Environmentalists dislike this, because it seems to mean that anything goes. In a sense they are correct. Native Americans managed the continent as they saw fit. Modern nations must do the same. If they want to return as much of the landscape as possible to its 1491 state, they will have to find it within themselves to create the world’s largest garden.

Our role in the environment needs to be self-interested, but with the understanding that our place in the hierarchy of Earth’s inhabitants gives us both magnificent and terrible powers to guide our world. The current debate on climate change would be well to absorb this sentiment. It is not at the extremes between “there is no climate change” and “human influence should not warm or change the planet”. What we instead must do is understand we are changing it and we should – we just need to be more careful and deliberate about what changes we make, so we can be stewards of the Earth not for 100 years, but for a hundred thousand.

Let me know your thoughts!