The Human Journey

Turning Points in the Development of Contemporary Society


New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

Vintage, 2006

Pages 12

Passenger pigeons
Passenger Pigeon, Ectopistes migratorius, juvenile (left),
male (center), female (right)

In 1823 the artist and naturalist, John Audubon saw a flock of passenger pigeons passing overhead in a single cloud for three whole days, obscuring the light of noon-day as if by an eclipse. In Audubon’s day one out of every four birds was a passenger pigeon. And suddenly, the passenger pigeon vanished with the last bird dying in September 1914.

Given that the passenger pigeon was a competitor of the Indians for mast (various nuts) as well as berries, and because crowds of pigeons would eat the food in their fields, it was expected that Indians would hunt them as enthusiastically as they did turkey, deer, and raccoons that also ate from their fields. Judging by the bones in archaeological sites, however, the Indians were enthusiastic hunters of everything except passenger pigeons, which leads archaeologists to think that there were not large numbers of these pigeons before Columbus. The impact of European contact altered the ecological dynamics in such a way that the passenger pigeon increased. The avian throngs that Audubon saw were out-break populations—always a symptom of an extraordinarily disrupted ecological system.

These are but a few examples: at the time of Columbus the Western Hemisphere had been thoroughly touched by human hands. Agriculture occurred in as much as two-thirds of what is now the United States, with large areas of the southwest terraced and irrigated. Among the maize fields in the Midwest and Southeast, mounds by the thousands were visible. The forests of the eastern seaboard had been moved back from the coasts and were now lined with farms. Salmon nets stretched across every ocean-bound stream in the northwest. And almost everywhere there was evidence that the Indians had set fires.

South of the Rio Grande, Indians had converted the Mexican basin and Yucatan into artificial environments. Terraces and canals and stony highways lined the western face of the Andes. Raised fields and causeways covered the Beni. Agriculture reached into Argentina and central Chile. Indians had converted perhaps a quarter of the Amazon forest into farms and agricultural forests and changed the once-forested Andes to grass and brush. The Inca, worried about fuel supply, were planting tree farms.

All of this development had implications for animal populations. For example, as settlements grew so did their maize fields. Indians discouraged animals, large and small, from their fields by hunting them until they were scarce around their homes. At the same time, they tried to encourage the larger animals to grow in number further away, where they would be useful. When disease swept Indians from the land, the entire ecological regime they established collapsed.

Map of the de Soto expidition
A proposed route for the de Soto Expedition,
based on Charles M. Hudson map of 1997

In the early sixteenth century, Hernando de Soto’s expedition through the Southeast saw hordes of people, but apparently not bison, or he would have mentioned it. More than a century later the French explorer LaSalle canoed down the Mississippi River. Where de Soto had found prosperous cities, LaSalle encountered solitude without any trace of humans, but he saw bison everywhere, grazing in herds on the great prairies that then bordered the Mississippi. When Indians died, these huge creatures vastly extended their range and numbers. According to scientists, the massive, thundering herds were a pathological symptom, something the land had not seen before and is unlikely to see again.

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, the hemisphere was thick with artificial wilderness. Far from destroying a pristine wilderness, Europeans seem to have created it. The newly emptied wilderness was indeed beautiful, but it was a product of demographic calamity.

Map of the La Salle & Cavelier expeditions
Map showing the course of the expeditions of René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle