The Noble Savage Myth and Landscape Transformation

Scholars of historical ecology have discounted the Ecologically Noble Savage mythology for a variety of reason, primary among them being the “Golden Age” and Romantic-period roots of the mythology. However, cultural ecologists initially favored the ecologically noble myth given it supported the “ecosystems trending towards equilibrium” approach. In a recent article, Betty Meggers (2007), that stalwart steward of cultural ecology, continues to favor an environmental and climatic explanation for the factors limiting population growth and cultural development in the Amazonian Basin and Brazilian highlands. Late in her career, long after the ecological savage was sent on his way, Meggers continues to deny the possibility that Amazonian Indians could affect their environments. In Meggers’ conception of Amazonia, the Natives of the region could not have been ecologically noble because there were never enough of them to have sufficient impacts on climate and environment (contra Crutzen’s seminal 2002 article in Nature). In her model of prehistory, the ecologically noble savage is irrelevant because the Amazonian Indian was too few in number to ever change his world. Historical ecologists, on the other hand, stipulate that dense prehistoric populations in Amazonia were responsible for both primary and secondary forms of landscape transformation. As at Ibibate and in the high and low forests of Ka’apor Indians, local and regional biodiversity was completely modified by humans. Furthermore, the geoglyphs of Acre, the ridged and zig-zag earthworks of the Llanos de Mojos , and the numerous instances of Amazonian Dark Earths gives significant reason to suggest large numbers of humans were present in the Amazonian Basin in prehistory; their low numbers at contact in the 18th and 19th centuries were an artifact of diseases and population disruptions catalyzed by initial contact with Spanish conquistadors in the mid-16th century and later Portuguese explorers. Previous to Orellana and Aguirre, these populations built mounds of shell and earth, increased the arable potential of their soils through ADE, and modified the landscape through waterways and causeways. In historical ecology, Indians are neutral towards biodiversity; they did not always have neutral effects on their environments, but they were not ecologically principled and/or mythically “green” as the Noble Savage mythology posited. The historical ecological perspective is contrary to Meggers’ understanding of Amazonian prehistory and is a viewpoint which sees both the forest and the trees, understanding them both as artifacts affected by thousands of years of human interference.

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