Friday, March 02, 2018



    "All peoples embrace creation myths—stories that tell whence they came. Commonly considered unique to premodern societies, such narratives of origins are also told in contemporary nations. More specifically, the United States—for most of its existence—has envisioned its beginnings as wilderness, a state of nature, a natural landscape. American society expanded across the continent, extending its frontiers through a wild and primeval environment. Over the last couple of decades, however, a contrary creation myth has emerged, rising like a crescendo until it has become conventional wisdom: the nation's roots extend back not into wilderness but into a landscape inhabited by the First Americans, a place both psychologically a home and hearth, and physically an artifact of human activities (1)...
Agricultural activity marks the landscape (of the SW) not only by cropland but also, sometimes, by constructed landforms—the canals of the Hohokam serve as an obvious example. Low rock check dams across ravines that collect sediment and thus form small surfaces for planting, short rock walls running along the contour on slopes that similarly create low terraces ("linear borders" or "contour terraces"), rectangular fields on level ground that are edged by earth or rock borders ("bordered gardens"), fields with veneers of gravel mulch—all result in landforms that persist long after agriculture has ended (Cordell 1997). But, as with agricultural fields more generally, these forms occupy only tiny parts of the landscape..."
     The manner of portraying archaeological sites in the anthropological literature may contribute to an exaggerated sense of the spatial scale of Indian agricultural impact. Typically in such studies, the maps of sites focus on the immediate environment in which artifacts and modifications are located—a logical and appropriate custom for purposes of presenting the data (Figure 1.6). This local scale, however, cannot reveal the landscape context for the impacts, which account for only small areas of the total environment.  (17)…

     Vegetation modifications other than formal agriculture may have been more prevalent in the East, but evidence of such activities is common in the West. Doolittle (2000) compiles a comprehensive compendium of specific Indian manipulations of plants throughout North America, and the results are dizzily rich in both number of instances and diversity of activities. Documented from firsthand accounts, ethnographies, and archaeological evidence, Doolittle's detailed listing is organized into categories arrayed along a continuum between the poles of formal agriculture (in which crop plants require human action to reproduce) and sim pie (simple?) gathering (in which wild plants yield products for people but are unaffected by them) (Box 1.2). Most closely resembling agriculture, the category of cultivation describes human planting of species that readily and commonly reproduce in the wild. Activities labeled as encouragement include manipulations of naturally occurring plants (e.g., diverting water from streams to wild stands of sedge), whereas, closer to gathering, those activities classified as protection involve management to enhance the persistence of particular natural plants (e.g., removing potentially damaging dead branches from shrubs). Within Doolittle's work, instances of cultivation, encouragement, and protection span the continent, although the larger number from the West, compared to the East, may reflect more the character of the data sources than the degree of proliferation of pre-European societies. Within the West, more than two-thirds of the documented examples occur in more densely populated California and the Southwest, again perhaps a consequence of the history of anthropological and archaeological study (and preservation of certain types of evidence in dry environments) and not a result of regional differences in human activities. These instances from the American West contribute to the question of the degree to which the pre-European landscape was humanized (18-19)…

     The category of cultivation includes such activities as the spreading of seeds of herbaceous species (e.g., Winter and Hogan 1986), but the transplanting of woody plants constitutes perhaps the most obvious illustration. A celebrated example involves the prehistoric Hohokam of central Arizona, who constructed piles of cobbles (which increased the infiltration of rainwater and/or runoff and thus enhanced available soil moisture) in which they planted agave (Agave spp.), prized for their edible fruits. The rockpiles, modest in size (1.5 meters in diameter and no more than 75 centimeters high) but numerous (about 42,000 in a study area of 350 square kilometers north of Tucson), represent a human modification of both the vegetation cover (including local range extensions of the transplanted agaves) and the landform surface (Fish, Fish, and Madsen 1985, 1990, 1992; Fish, Fish, Miksicek, and Madsen 1985). Interspersed with pits for roasting the fruits, as well as with low terraces and check dams for field crops, the rockpiles contributed to impressive agricultural/cultivation complexes (Figure 1.7). Nonetheless, as with formal agricultural fields, the percent of the landscape directiy modified by constructed rockpiles is small—-they collectively cover only 1.4 percent of the area in the "full-coverage" survey in the northern Tucson Basin—and the acreage of the complexes mapped at a more general scale leave much landscape unmodified (Figure 1.7).  (pages 19, illustrated on 20 & continued on 21)

     The most likely impact on the landscape—an impact that might be said to alter the fundamental conditions of vegetation and ecosystems— is fire. Moreover, long-lived, fire-dependent trees may testify to a former burning regime centuries after the cessation of conflagrations. These characteristics, then, render Indian burning—identified by generations of anthropologically inclined geographers and other scientists as the human activity that has shaped landscapes for almost as long as people have been around (Stewart 1956)—to be key to those contemporary champions of the pre-European North American humanized landscape, probably because of fire's prehistoric association with people, its apparent ubiquity, and its potential as a landscape-scale factor. Even so, Indian burning cannot be assumed, a priori, to determine the character of all environments on the continent. In fact, in the very region where fires were, and are, most important—the American West— questions remain as to what factor, fuels or ignitions, determined preEuropean fire regimes. If the former, Indian burning may not have been an important modifier of nature; if the latter, Indian burning could have altered the landscape from what otherwise would have occurred. Since it is both spatially extensive and temporally persistent, anthropogenic fire is the most likely candidate for major human modification of nature in pre-European Western North America, and, as such, it is a key to the pristine-versus-humanized landscape debate. But was Indian burning critical to the appearance of the American West before the arrival of Columbus? It is to this question that the essays in this book are directed (31)..."

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