The Pristine Myth

Some interesting new findings about the archaeological record of Australia are raising some interesting questions about one of my favourite little controversies: the perception of indigenous peoples as natural environmental conservationists. In my academic research with indigenous peoples of the Arctic, one of the most common generalizations I come across is that indigenous peoples are more 'in touch' with nature and have always had sustainable environmental practices. An article on Local Knowledge in Canada and the World Backgrounder, typifies this view dichotomizing indigenous and Western views of nature and the environment:

  • "indigenous and other traditional peoples have long associations with nature and a deep understanding of it..."
  • "Western society has used technology to tame and overcome Nature. Most urban people feel no connection to the land, while for Indigenous people the land is the source of life that nourishes, supports, and teaches."
Now, I fully agree that indigenous peoples, because of their traditional lifestyles and livelihoods (living in small groups, subsisting mainly by hunting and gathering) needed to be more environmentally aware than we modern 'Westerners' who live in large globalized urban societies and whose basic needs are addressed through the retail chain. It is vital to understand, however, that this perceived environmentalism is not somehow inherent to indigenous peoples and not to Westerners. Rather, it is a natural result of the conditions in which the societies lived.

The real danger of such perceptions, is that they quickly take on the power of idealized myth. The widespread perception of indigenous peoples as the ultimate environmentalists has caught on because it plays on Western guilt and alienation, and allows us to romanticize a mythological past and the 'noble savage.' Indigenous peoples, particularly the Inuit through the Inuit Circumpolar Conferencehave wisely used this perception in their political dealings with national governments to reach breakthrough international agreements on pollutants, and are highly visible in the Arctic climate change campaign.

So while this may be seen as positive stereotype of indigenous peoples, it is a stereotype nonetheless. Holding to such beliefs can often get in the way of understanding the broad complexity of the history of human societies, and our relationship with one another, and our environment.

In The Pristine Myth William M. Denevan challenges this perception by examining archaeological evidence from the Americas, and makes a good argument about why this myth first arose in the 18th century. Abstract:

The myth persists that in 1492 the Americas were a sparsely populated wilderness, -a world of barely perceptible human disturbance.- There is substantial evidence, however, that the Native American landscape of the early sixteenth century was a humanized landscape almost everywhere. Populations were large. Forest composition had been modified, grasslands had been created, wildlife disrupted, and erosion was severe in places. Earthworks, roads, fields, and settlements were ubiquitous. With Indian depopulation in the wake of Old World disease, the environment recovered in many areas. A good argument can be made that the human presence was less visible in 1750 than it was in 1492.

Now there are new findings from Australia that indicate the first humans on the continent may have precipitated a mass extinction of the megafauna on that continent through their practice of using fires to clear land. Denevan's article notes similar evidence of the use of fires in the Americas. It is possible that both the deserts of Australia and the Great Plains of the US were the result of anthropogenic (human caused) landscape change. The Biology Refugia blog has a nice summary of the state of the current scientific debate.

While it is true that indigenous peoples around the world have developed cultures that are highly respective and integrated into their natural environments, we must be careful not to let romantic notions and political discourse prevent us from digging deeper into our past and revealing the messy complexity that invariably lies there. As to whether it was human made fires, overhunting, or climate change that led to the mass megafauna extintion, the answer is most likely a rather unsatisfactory (for the non-scientist), "a bit of everything."

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Posted on July 11, 2005 and filed under Academic, Reading.