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The Pristine Myth was described by William Denevan, who was a geographer in the Wisconsin University. The myth’s basis was the belief that, in 1491, America was an almost unmarked and ‘Edenic’ land that underwent entrammeling by man. It states that America was a wilderness with a sparse population, and minimal human disturbance. Many people believe that the whole landscape of native America was a humanized one, with disruption of wildlife, erosion, and ubiquitous settlements of the Indians, especially in the early sixteenth century. Others believe that, during this time, the Native American landscape was a virgin wilderness with no evidence of settlements. On the contrary, there was no localization on the impact of the Indian settlements with the concern being magnitude and a form of the modification to the environment, rather than check if they were living in harmony with nature. Exploration is also distinct on whether the Indians’ systems of resource management were sustainable. They changed almost the entire landscape making it worth meriting attention to the effect of conservation (Denevan, 2011).
By the year 1492, the activity of the Indians in the American land caused a modification in the composition and extent of the forest cover, expansion of grasslands, and relief rearrangement through artificial earthworks. These activities had a significant effect on the climate, soil structure and composition, wildlife, and hydrology. According to evidence by William Doolittle, a geographer in the University of Texas, agriculture activities were in approximately two thirds of the US continent including practices such as terracing of the swaths and irrigation. They had cleared the main forested areas and the coast lines to put up farms that stretched for many miles. All of these had local impacts on soil, microclimate, hydrology, and wildlife. If all the evidence of the pristine myth is put together, ranging from archeological findings, field surveys, and historical accounts, it would support the hypothesis that the landscape in dispute majorly vanished by the eighteenth century due to the demise and practices of the native population (Charles Mann, 2002).
Should the Pristine Myth be taught in public schools?
Just like other schools, the curriculum in public schools covers Geography, History, and Environmental Studies. These areas of study are mandatory and need to be taught in these schools. The Pristine Myth widely covers these mentioned areas from the history of how the Indians settled in the American land before the Europeans to doing several land practices that rendered the continent to be a wilderness. The geographical and environmental aspects occur in the plains, forests, and water bodies, including the rivers, fish and bird life. This myth and all the perspectives attached to it have not even been introduced in the school textbooks. Charles Mann (2005) explains that the reason this topic on the Pristine Myth needs to be taught in public schools is because it will provide for the school to give lessons on environmental conservation. He, however, implies that the notion of this myth has gone through transformation into ideas like how the land can be reverted to the wilderness as it was before the Columbus. Introduction of this myth or narration into the syllabus of public schools will enable students to learn and gain knowledge on the history of their immediate environment and the impact of the past practices on the entire composition of their environment. They can then advance to learn on the strategies of conservation which will help them in saving this continent.
What are the benefits of teaching this narrative about the relationship between Native Americans and the environment?
The relationship between the Native Americans and the environment had a significant effect on vegetation. The disturbance of forests throughout the continent was caused at various levels by the Indian activities. Clearing and burning of the forests to create room for agricultural land led to fallow vegetation and open grasslands of considerable sizes. The remaining natural forest was not unbroken, vast, silent, and impenetrable like the previous forest wilderness. This selective clearing of forest vegetation promoted the mosaic quality of the ecosystems with many forests of ecological succession in several states. This also established the required conditions for the survival and growth of fruits and other gathered foods. Several plants that are of human use were also saved, planted, and protected, for example, plums, chestnuts, coffee bushes, leek, and groundnut (Mann, 2005).
The impact of the Native Americans on wildlife is also evident in the Pristine Myth. Controversy, however, remains on whether hunting by the Indians resulted into the extinction of large mammals with subsequent regional and local depletions. In Amazonia, for example, depletion of local game increases with the size and settling duration of the villages. The procedures for hunting in several regions have given a chance for recovery because of the intentional resting of the hunting zones or shifting of the sites for the villages. On the other hand, the disturbance of the forest reserves resulted in an increase in edge effect and herbaceous forage, hence increasing the numbers of some animals. The Indians created ideal and favorable habitats for many species of wildlife (Mann, 2002).
Another benefit from this narrative is learning the impact of the settlements on erosion. The population of Native Americans, subsequent deforestation, and intensive agriculture that occurred a long time ago caused severe degradation of land in several parts of the continent. There are signs of severe soil erosion that was widespread, and is not a result of the subsequent deforestation, cultivation, and livestock rearing by the Europeans who settled after the Indians.
What are the problems with this story?
The first impression many people get from this myth is that the landscape in the US went through heavy management to lead to its depreciation. The Indians burnt the portions of land where they did not cultivate in order to provide a favorable ecosystem for the bears, elks, and deer. They cleared enough trees to allow the creatures of the prairie called bison to survive all the way from New York to Georgia. The effect on the middle of the continent was immense especially of an indigenous fire and was changed into a game farm by the Native Americans (DuHamel, 2012). This view is undermining because the understanding that the shaping of the landscape occupied occurred irrevocably by the people who initially lived there does not imply endorsement of careless land practices. Many researchers and environmentalists assert that the American landscape was thoroughly painted by the human brush during the time of Columbus. In recent times, geographers, archeologists, and anthropologists do not support this myth. The current research suggests that the Western Hemisphere was not just an empty landscape with a few hunters and gatherers, but, instead, was a diverse place rich in culture, trade, languages, and offered a home to millions of people.
However, Denevan (2011) noted that the Indian settlement and practices led to several disasters. It also had a transformative, subtle, and persistent impact on the environment. The forests were cleared and burnt to pave the way for farm land though the soil that remained largely intact and markedly improved. There is extremely little evidence that these Native Americans depleted or polluted the supplies of water and resource base, despite the large population.
Should what we teach about this topic vary according to the grade level?
The different aspects of this topic should vary according to the grade level giving more advanced details or information introduced as the students progress up to the higher grade levels. The students should be given the basic introductions and details as they begin their history, geography, or environmental lessons, i.e. in the lower grade levels. This topic should, however, be handled carefully especially on the sensitive parts which can bring up racial or cultural conflicts. The political impacts due to this topic will also emerge, and this can impact the students and the school systems in general.
The activities of the Indians in 1492 resulted in modifications of the vegetation, wildlife, increasing soil erosion, roads, earthquakes, and settlements in most parts of America where their population size was overwhelming. There is ample evidence to support these effects from various archeological, geographical, and demographic data. The American landscapes that were highly occupied were those situated in the highland regions with high population size. These were the areas with characteristics such as intensive agriculture, dense settlement schemes, erosion, widespread vegetation, and depletion of wildlife. According to Williams Lake Band (2012), the pristine image of America in 1492 appears to be a myth, which is even applicable in the subsequent years after the Indian settlement and departure. After the decline of the Indians and even after the Europeans occupied the land, the process of recovery has only been partial up to the present day. The notion and controversy to this myth forms an argument that holds up to the scrutiny of possible further investigations with the availability of substantial evidence.
This myth holds a lot of importance to the history of the US continent that affects its current operations especially on the environment. Establishing the conservation strategies has to be based on the principles and details from the Pristine Myth so as to come up with sound measures on how they handle the environment. These measures can also be drawn as a way of recovering the damaged parts of the existing land. All these useful measures and recommendations can only make sense if the topic is introduced in the school syllabus so that the students are informed and empowered to be future planners, researchers, or environmentalists, and better conserve their environment (Mann, 2005).