The Pristine Myth

Pristine: “belonging to the earliest period or state; uncorrupted by civilization.”

We often hear the plea from preservationists that we must save the pristine desert, or stream, or forest, or jungle, or whatever, because these are the “last best places” untrammeled by man. But are they really so pristine?

Archaeological and anthropological research during the last 15 years or so, shows that much of what we thought was pristine in the Western Hemisphere, even the Amazon rain forest, is actually human-formed landscape created by the first New World inhabitants, the Indians. It seems that American Indians, from North America, Mexico and South America, were the ultimate land managers, and they transformed the land to suit their needs. They constructed the world’s largest gardens.

The quest of some preservationists to return the land to pre-Columbian times, to its state prior to 1492, is a quest in pursuit of a myth. “The pristine view is to a large extent an invention of nineteenth-century romanticist and primitivist writers such as W.H. Hudson, Cooper, Thoreau, Longfellow, and Parkman, and painters such as Catlin and Church.”1 Reality, according to the new research, is quite different.

The Amazon forest in the Beni region of Bolivia consists of “an archipelago of forest islands, many of them startlingly round and hundreds of acres across. Each island rose ten or thirty or sixty feet above the floodplain, allowing trees to grow that would otherwise never survive the water. The forests were linked by raised berms, as straight as a rifle shot and up to three miles long.”2 Researcher Clark Erickson of the University of Pennsylvania believes “that the entire landscape, 30,000 square miles of forest mounds surrounded by raised fields and linked by causeways, was constructed by a complex, populous society more than 2,000 years ago.”2 “A growing number of researchers have come to believe that Indian societies had an enormous environmental impact on the jungle. Indeed, some anthropologists have called the Amazon forest itself a cultural artifact, that is, an artificial object.”2The 1539 expedition of Hernando de Soto across what is now the southeastern U.S. encountered not some primeval forest, but “thickly settled land, very well peopled by large towns.”2 In 1519, Hernan Cortes saw that the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan was bigger than Paris and contained “wide streets, ornately carved buildings, and markets bright with goods from hundreds of miles away.”2 Even the first settlers in the northeastern U.S. found that forests were open and park-like, not the dense grow romanticized by writers hundreds of years later.

Many researchers estimate that the Americas were well-populated before the arrival of Columbus, with a population of between 40- to 80 million, greater than the population of Europe at the time. “Moreover, the native impact on the landscape of 1492 reflected not only the population then but the cumulative effects of a growing population over the previous 15,000 years or more.”1American Indians built cities and civilizations, cultivated forests and farms, and developed more than half of the crops grown worldwide today. Indians, rather than subsist passively on what wild nature provided, instead “survived by cleverly exploiting their environment.”2 Their principal tool was fire.3 They did not domesticate animals for meat, but instead used fire to change whole ecosystems to raise deer, elk, and bison. “Millennia of exuberant burning shaped the plains into vast buffalo farms.”2

But then the Europeans came and unintentionally brought with them smallpox, typhus, influenza, diphtheria and measles, (and later on cholera, malaria, and scarlet fever). Within about 130 years after first contact, 95% of the native population was wiped out by disease.2 By 1682, when French explorers retraced de Soto’s journey, they found the land nearly deserted. Because the hunters were gone, buffalo, elk, and deer populations exploded. Because the fire-using land managers were gone, dense forests, romanticized by 19th century writers had taken over the carefully managed forest parks. In one sense, Europeans did not destroy pristine wilderness, but recreated it.

By “1492, Indian activity had modified vegetation and wildlife, caused erosion, and created earthworks, roads, and settlements throughout the Americas. This may be obvious, but the human imprint was much more ubiquitous and enduring than is usually realized. The historical evidence is ample, as are data from surviving earthworks and archaeology. And much can be inferred from present human impacts. The weight of evidence suggests that Indian populations were large, not only in Mexico and the Andes, but also in seemingly unattractive habitats such as the rainforests of Amazonia, the swamps of Mojos (Bolivia), and the deserts of Arizona.”1

I would argue that humans have enriched the land by making it produce more, and have increased diversity by creating more habitats than would otherwise occur. When preservationists whine about losing our “pristine” desert, and pine for a return to Walden, when the “vision” statements of federal land management agencies speak grandiosely of ecosystem management in search of the pristine myth, remind them that nature is not so pristine. It is always changing. The “forest primeval” doesn’t exist.



1: Denevan, William M., ca. 1992, The Pristine Myth: The Landscape of the Americas in 1492, Department of Geography, University of Wisconsin.

2: Mann, Charles C., 2002, 1491, The Atlantic Monthly, March 2002.


3:Krech, Shepard, 1999, The Ecological Indian, W.W. Norton & Co.



  1. In fact, very soon the “forest” won’t exist at all. 

    The real myth being told here is that there is absolutely no reason to stop extractive and exploitive industries from doing whatever they will in the never-ending search for greater profits.  The free market and the “virtue of selfishness” are the only things worth saving and the only things that will save us from ourselves.

  2. nature reproduces “pristine” every second of everyday.  we comprimise the ” pristine” nature of things just by observing them .  every time i change something it is in a new pristine state.  we are part of nature it is not unusual or a perversion for us to change our enviroment. every living creature has done so since the beggining of time .

  3. “Wry Heat – “All the science that fits the agenda”-Lefty’s crankier than Mom today. Every important issue has a polarizing effect on us. Human nature. Pick out ten people randomly and ask these same questions. BTW-Your views could be called an agenda also. Have an exceptional Fourth of July Leftfield, and try to remember who gave you the freedom to express yourself .

  4. Seems today’s lesson is that humans control their environment.
    Human control of the environmnent is presented as a good thing.

    In addition, humans must be careful not to make their environment “pristine” for “prisitine” is a human concept.

  5. You’re right; I do have an agenda.  I hope that is clear to anyone reading these pages. 

    You have a great 4th also. 

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