3 Jan 2009, 10:25am
Cultivated Landscapes
by admin

Cultivated Landscapes of Native Amazonia and the Andes

William M. Denevan. 2001. Cultivated Landscapes of Native Amazonia and the Andes. Oxford University Press, 2001.

Review by Mike Dubrasich

Cultivated Landscapes of Native Amazonia and the Andes is widely recognized as the modern masterpiece of historical landscape geography. It is one of a trilogy of books inspired and coordinated by William Denevan. The others are Cultivated Landscapes of Native North America by William Doolittle and Cultivated Landscapes of Middle America on the Eve of Conquest by Thomas M. Whitmore and B.L. Turner II.

The authors of all three volumes are landscape geographers who have studied the profound and lasting impacts that indigenous human beings have had over thousands of years on the vegetation, soils, hydrology, and wildlife of the Americas.

Denevan is the unofficial “godfather” of an intellectual tradition that developed under Carl O. Sauer in the Department of Geography at Berkeley. UCLA’s Susanna Hecht described that tradition (tongue in cheek, with affection) as a machine:

The geographer William Denevan’s “machine” (and its affines) and the Berkeley School of cultural geography converged with historical ethnobotany and compiled an extensive set of analyses on indigenous resource management systems in Central America, the Andes, and the Amazon, where questions about landscape and ecological histories whose logics, though not divorced from productionist questions (what fed large populations in these difficult montane or tropical environments?) were linked to their historical, agroecological and environmental underpinnings (Balée and Erickson 2006; Denevan 1970, 1976, 1992, 2001; Denevan and Padoch 1987; Erickson 2000; Whitmore and Turner 2001; Zimmerer 2001). It was this framework, as well as pro indigenous activism that gave impetus to other projects, such as Darrell Posey’s 12 year Kayapó project, and those spearheaded by New York Botanical Garden’s Gillian Prance. — from SB Hecht, Chapter 7, Kayapó Savanna Management: Fire, Soils, and Forest Islands in a Threatened Biome in William Woods et al. 2009. Amazonian Dark Earths: Wim Sombroek’s Vision, Springer (soon to be released).

All those mentioned by the verbose Hecht (Bill Woods, Bill Balée, Clark Erickson, etc.) and many more of our leading landscape geographers, anthropologists, ethnobotanists, and forest historians, trace their intellectual roots to Bill Denevan. Charles C. Mann’s fascinating bestseller, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus [here], was inspired directly and indirectly by Denevan and his “machine”.

In a biographical essay about Bill Denevan, I described him (tongue in cheek, with affection) as “the real Indiana Jones” [here]. As an adventurous young man in the 1950’s, Denevan boarded a freighter in Los Angeles and then jumped ship in Lima, Peru. He subsequently traversed South America and in a flight over eastern Bolivia “discovered” the signs of a lost civilization in the Llanos de Mojos. And like the fictitious Indiana Jones, Denevan went on to became a scholar (and Chair, now emeritus, of the Dept. of Geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison).

Cultivated Landscapes of Native Amazonia and the Andes (and it’s companion books) is the culmination of a lifetime of pathfinding research and teaching. It is a text, organized and written for graduate and undergraduate instruction, but between the lines it is also a tale of adventure and exploration. The insights related in Cultivated Landscapes were gained by the combined efforts of dozens of field researchers braving jungles, savannas, trackless swamps, towering mountains, and seared deserts. The book is a synthesis, but it represents hands-on fieldwork in what we think of today as wilderness, but what in truth has been home to humanity for 10,000 years or more.

Amazonia and the Andes seem today to be harsh regions, difficult and testing for the bare survival of only the hardiest people. Yet the indigenous residents developed complex systems of cultivation, planting, orcharding, and plant and animal husbandry that were intensive, highly productive, and sustainable. Apparently marginal lands with extremes of climate and poor soils once supported large populations and complex societies.

Denevan approaches that complexity through the analysis of anthropogenic landforms. These include cross-channel terraces and check dams, sloping-field terraces, bench terraces, embankments, pond fields, sunken fields, bordered gardens, canals, reservoirs, raised and ridged fields, ditched fields, crop mounds, and many others. Hundreds of thousands of such ancient cultivated sites still exist, although they have been rediscovered only recently, most often through aerial observation and photography.

From Cultivated Landscapes of Native Amazonia and the Andes by William Denevan:

In Mojos there are four main types of savanna fields that were raised and drained for cultivation; (1) platform fields where earth was piled up to form low, rectangular flat surfaces, (2) narrow, ridged fields, (3) fields consisting of regularly spaced small mounds, and (4) fields in which ditches were dug to provide drainage. …

I saw from the air or on aerial photographs an estimated 5,000 large platform fields, 6,00 ridged fields, and 24,000 ditched fields for a total of 35,000 individually drained fields, not to mention a dozen mound fields each containing hundreds of mounds. … I only flew over a portion of the region having fields; and identifying fields on aerial photographs is difficult, even when the exact location of the fields is known. Consequently, there are many more drained fields than represented by the above figures. A total of 100,000 linear drained fields occupying at least 6,000 ha (15,000 acres) of field surface spread unevenly over the western Beni is a minimum estimate. There could be several hundred thousand fields.

Bill Denevan was the first to note the ancient cultivated fields. University of Pennsylvania archaeologist Clark Erickson has since discovered many more of these features in Mojos. That quantity of cultivated land, where manioc, maize, sweet potatoes, and cotton were probably grown, could have supported a sizable population of possibly several hundred thousand.

Recent studies have also identified modified soils such as terra preta, the Amazon dark earths that were amended by charcoal and compost. Millions of acres of terra preta have been found in the allegedly “pristine” Amazon rainforest, indications of large sedentary civilizations that persisted for centuries prior to Columbus and the introduction of Eurasian diseases.

Another important book by Bill Denevan is The Native Population of the Americas in 1492 (1976, Univ. of Wisconsin Press). That book is a compilation of historical demographic analyses by scholars including Denevan, Woodrow Borah, and William T. Sanders. Despite being over 30 years old, Native Populations of the Americas in 1492 is still considered to contain the best estimates to date of pre-Columbian populations.

Denevan’s own analysis and synthesis of the work of Borah, Henry Dobyns, Wilbur R. Jacobs and others leads him to speculate that the population of the New World in 1492 was at least 57,000,000 people. That count exceeds the estimated population of much of contemporaneous Europe.

The introduction of European diseases into the Americas in 1492 caused an astounding and horrific population crash within a few decades. By 1650 only about 5,000,000 New World indigenous people were left, a decline of over 90 percent. It is little wonder that many writers refer to the post-Columbian depopulation as “the American Holocaust.”

Europeans did not encounter an untrammeled wilderness but a landscape rich with human antiquity and ancient presence. The Americas were homelands to people for thousands of years prior to European expansion here. This is true everywhere in the Americas. Where you sit as you read this essay, your location today, has history, a human history of incredible antiquity. That is an important revelation. This is not a “new world” but an ancient land filled with the ghosts of civilizations past. Our landscapes have seen the imprint of humanity for thousands of years. Wilderness is a myth. That is Bill Denevan’s lesson for us all.

There are implications we may derive from that lesson. Abandoning and/or dehumanizing landscapes in the name of putative wilderness is disrespectful to historical fact and destructive of ancient legacies. Imposing the “untrammeled, virgin land” myth on real landscapes today leads to catastrophic fires and destruction of watersheds, wildlife habitat, and numerous other resource values, as well as obliterating the human past.

Our obligations instead should be to explore the ancient landscapes and learn from them, and to restore heritage conditions where we can. The challenge should be to connect with land, not to disconnect because of imaginary and mythological assumptions.

Study of ancient cultivated landscapes can reveal techniques and systems of stewardship that have utility today. Landscape restoration seeks not to mimic ancient practices but to learn from them in order to improve our own efforts at sustainable agriculture and silviculture.

Cultivated Landscapes of Native Amazonia and the Andes is a guidepost and roadmap to such studies. Bill Denevan has shown us the way to move forward through examination of an almost forgotten past. This book is one of the great works of modern scientific inquiry, one destined to be recognized as a classic.

5 Feb 2010, 7:04pm
by Joe

Do you find orator Fuller Cook’s understanding on the dispersal of the coconut from the western part of the Americas throughout Oceania plausible?

If not, could you please cite a better authority. Thank you.

5 Feb 2010, 9:13pm
by Mike

I am not familiar with Cook’s orations on the matter, so cannot comment directly. However, the origins and distribution of the coconut (Coco nucifera) have been the subject of long-standing debate and controversy. An excellent discussion with citation of numerous references may be found in:

John L. Sorenson, Carl L. Johannessen. 2009. World Trade and Biological Exchanges Before 1492. iUniverse. [here]

Sorenson and Johannessen conclude that coconuts were of Asian origin and were probably brought to the Americas by Pacific voyagers no later than 400 C.E. — 1,100 years before Columbus — based on findings of Robinson et al. in Guatemala and previous archaeological finds at Copan, Honduras. Dennis and Gunn (1971) showed that there is a limit to the distance coconuts can drift in the ocean and retain viability. There are no known cases of coconuts having grown on Australian shores or in the Atlantic/Caribbean region. Harries (1978) as well as Dennis and Gunn favor the intentional transportation and planting in the Americas by early transoceanic voyagers.

World Trade and Biological Exchanges Before 1492 is a tremendous book that details the evidence of pre-Columbian world trade of nearly 100 species of plants. I highly recommend you buy it. You should ask your local library to purchase a copy, too.



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