16 Jun 2008, 8:18am
Forestry education Saving Forests
by admin

The Real Indiana Jones

As Harrison Ford reprises (again) his Hollywood role as an academic turned adventurer, few people know that the character he plays, Indiana Jones, had a real life counterpart, or so was self-proclaimed by the Peruvian explorer and raconteur Gene Savoy [here].

However, I wish to offer another candidate, who in my opinion fits the legendary description much better. In this Indiana Jones’ own words:

It was 1956. I had just finished my first year of graduate school at Berkeley, with hopes of becoming a desert geographer. …

Alas, academic standards in graduate school were much higher than I expected. My first year was a disaster and after floundering around I dropped out. That June, my high school buddy Ray H. and I got jobs as unpaid deckhands aboard the S.S. Hardanger. It was a Norwegian freighter heading south out of Los Angeles down along the coast of Mexico and South America, rounding the horn and up the coast of Brazil …

I didn’t make it all the way. I jumped ship in Lima where I knew Don W. from Long Beach. .. I only had a few hundred dollars and was happy when Don helped me land a job with the the city’s English language weekly newspaper, The Peruvian Times.

So begins the saga of the fellow who went on to discover a lost civilization and later helped rewrite the academic discipline of ancient landscape geography.

His name is Bill Denevan, Dr. William M. Denevan Ph.D., professor emeritus and former Chair of the Dept. of Geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Some fifty years ago, on one his forays into the uncharted Amazon basin, he flew over the Bolivian swamps of the Rio Beni in a transport plane. Below him spread the Beni savanna for thousands of square miles, the Llanos de Mojos, an immense grassland frequently flooded for half the year. In those days the Llanos de Mojos were occupied mainly by a handful of Indians and cowboys, who scrabbled for a meager living with slash-and-burn gardens and half-wild cattle in the pampas, palm thickets, and scrub lands.

I talked my way onto a B-17 bomber left over from World War II. With several others, it was used to haul beef from the Beni savanna to Cochabamba and La Paz. I rode in a side gun turret surrounded by raw meat—scary, but I had a great view of the seasonally flooded Llanos de Mojos. Looking down I could make out some strange linear features, which as a landscape geographer I knew were neither natural nor modern. They turned out to be prehistoric causeways, canals, and raised fields. I didn’t realize then that just five years later I would be down in those swamps gathering information for my doctoral dissertation.

The above quotes are from The South American Explorer, No. 78, Spring 2005, a retrospective Bill wrote entitled “In Amazonia for the Peruvian Times.” Bill Denevan does not claim to be the real Indiana Jones, although, he says, “I might have met him,” speaking of Savoy. To tell the truth, he is somewhat dismayed by the nomination. But only a few have uncovered (rediscovered) more about the lost civilizations of Amazonia than Bill.

Bill Denevan went on to become a real scholar, too, something the Hollywood Indiana Jones only hints at. His greatest scholarly work is probably Cultivated Landscapes of Native Amazonia and the Andes (2001, Oxford Univ. Press), widely recognized as the modern masterpiece of historical landscape geography. It is one of a trilogy of books inspired and coordinated by 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.

Note: we intend to review all three of these books in the W.I.S.E. History of Western Landscapes Colloquium. Most recently we posted excerpts from Bill Denevan’s seminal essay, The Pristine Myth: The Landscape of the Americas in 1492 [here].

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.

The earthworks are prehistoric, and whatever civilization built and used them was gone by the time early Spanish explorers arrived in eastern Bolivia in the late 1500’s. It could be that the builders of the earthworks of Mojos had vanished long before, or that their population and civilization were brought down by European diseases shortly after Columbus, Cortez, and Pizarro introduced them in the early 1500’s.

In any case, it is clear from the studies of Bill Denevan and others that the Amazon Basin was not a wilderness but instead was inhabited by civilized, agricultural human beings for over a thousand years. The story of civilization in the Americas is best told by Charles C. Mann in his bestseller, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus.

Mann was inspired by Bill Denevan, as are so many archaeologists, historians, and landscape geographers today.

Much of that inspiration grew from another important book by Bill Denevan, 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.”

His adventures in Amazonia notwithstanding, Bill Denevan’s primary contribution has been to open the eyes of scholars and researchers to the long and extensive history of humanity in the Americas. 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 our ancient landscapes, to 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. Some call those myths racist and grounded in Euro-centric colonialism. Morally, we must rise above that particular checkered past and embrace a fuller, more accurate and sensitive concept of our world.

Bill Denevan, my candidate for the “real” Indiana Jones, ventured into the unknown and found human history, lost civilizations, and ancient signs of Man on the landscape. He found hidden treasures, not gold and jewels, but real treasures, the cultivated fields of antiquity, the source of sustenance for human existence for millennia. And he has bequeathed those treasures to us all, in the form of knowledge.

Bill Denevan, in my estimation, is a true hero far more admirable than any Hollywood version of Indiana Jones.

16 Jun 2008, 1:26pm
by bear bait

I ring the same bell, and if it is bothersome, cut my bell lanyard.

If you give humans a tract of land, anywhere, they will do all that they can with available resources and time to make it all look the same, no matter where in the world you are.

It will have trees if at all possible, and if it were a forest, many trees will be removed to obtain an open canopy savanna/grassland. Water will be used, or introduced, if at all possible. Usable and needed plants will get top billing, and ways to nurture and capture animals for use will be a part of the landscape management. The whole landscape was managed to provide for the community of man. It is who we were and who we are.

Those who deny that are only trying to enslave whomever they might for the deniers’ benefit. The landscape gains no benefit from being “wildland” or “wilderness.”

My great examples are Central Park in NYC, most any college or university campus, or even the concept of campus in high tech or manufacturing facilities, state parks, community parks, high school grounds, and urban open areas. They all end up with similar characteristics because we are human, and that is what humans do. What more is a golf course than a place to chase a little white ball around in grass, brush, trees, water, and sand? Or a grand “green” subdivision of elegant homes? Our sought after comfort is in these similar landscapes. It is in our very essence, our very being.

So all we need to do is use modern technology, and the idea that whoever has come before us had similar ideas and comforts, and we will find where they were. Aerial photography has revealed lineal structure shadows and footprints in many areas of the US. Those before us made great and grand impacts on the landscape, and perhaps there were people before them. All we need to do is look.

I have often wondered if the original forests found here in the US still have clues as to who was here earlier. Perhaps someone will find a way to look for whatever clues were left behind.



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