If the stereotypical view of the Native American as a vicious barbarian is dangerous, its mirror image – that of the Noble Savage – has proved to be just as pernicious. More so because the ideal of the Noble Savage is relatively uncontroversial among both those who hate Indians and those who admire them. Many environmentalists fall into the latter camp. 

The Lie

Let us, for a bit, imagine what America looked like before 1492, when Columbus sailed the ocean blue. One might picture lush green fields, virgin forests and wild bison roaming freely. Perhaps this landscape, otherwise devoid of humans and their artifice, might be dotted by the huts of a tribe of Indians, their primitivity rendering them as much a part of nature as the animals and plants that surround them. Perhaps this is what Eden would have look like: untouched and pure.

Pietro Martire d’Anghiera, writing in the early 16th century, declared that Indians, “lyve in that goulden world of whiche owlde writers speake so much,” existing “simplye and innocentlye without inforcement of lawes” (sic). Five hundred years since, the innocence and simplicity of the Noble Savage mostly refer to the Indians’ supposed lack of impact on their environment. 

Henry David Thoreau wrote of “Indian wisdom,” an indigenous way of thought that supposedly did not encompass measuring or categorizing, which he viewed as evils that allowed human beings to change Nature. In 1970, Keep America Beautiful, Inc., an environmentalist organization created enormously successful billboards that depicted an Indian sobbing over polluted land. The billboard’s implicit assumption, of course, is that Indians never disturbed their environment from its original, wild state. 

This immensely popular 1970s ad depicts a Native American crying over the destruction of America’s “pristine” landscape. It conveys a false narrative that Indian’s did not themselves manipulate their land. COURTESY OF THE CHICAGO TRIBUNE.

The Truth

In his award-winning book, 1491: New Revelation of the Americas Before Columbus, journalist Charles C. Mann masterfully shows how Thoreau’s “Indian wisdom” would have been as foreign to the Indians as he thought it was to white Americans. 

“Until Columbus,” Mann writes, “Indian’s were a keystone species in most of the hemisphere.”

Indians had been managing their environment for thousands of years: annually burning undergrowth, clearing and replanting forests, building canals and raising fields, hunting bison and netting salmon, growing maize, manioc and the Eastern Agricultural Complex, which was one of about 10 independent centers of plant domestication in the pre-historic world. And, in that time, the environment and Indians adapted to each other, rendering the Indians indispensable to the health of America’s ecology.

Two-thirds of pre-Columbian America’s land was used for agriculture by the Native Indians. Much of the rest of it was thoroughly managed and maintained. COURTESY OF CHARLES MANN.

Mann argues, the Indians largely engineered their environment in remarkable stable and resilient ways. When farmers in Mesopotamia, North Africa and parts of India ruined their land over millennia of clumsy farming, the milpa lands in America maintained their productivity. The Indians transformed the otherwise barren Peruvian landscape, which underwent wholesale transformation with the carving of vast terraces, into a cradle of civilization. And all of this land management required close, continual oversight by the Indians. They engaged with the environment in an intimate, mutually beneficial dialectic that transformed the Americas into a land of its human inhabitants’ making.

The European Perspective

Early European settlers weren’t deliberately lying in their descriptions of the New World. They probably really did see untamed, unoccupied land teeming with bison. They were wrong, however, to attribute the inviting “emptiness” to the Indians’ inability to master the land. 

Today, scientists generally acknowledge that the wilderness colonists excitedly labelled “virginal” was in fact created – not by the Native Americans, but by the earliest 15th- and 16th-century European explorers in the New World. Or, more precisely, the wilderness was the result of the devastation wrought by the smallpox those Europeans brought with them to the Americas.

The scientific community now largely recognizes that Pre-Columbian America was much more densely populated than previously thought. Indeed, so densely populated that the very first European explorers in the Mississippi Valley found a land “thickly set with great towns” according to a 1539 account, “two or three of them to be seen from one.” Early colonial expeditions to the Eastern Seaboard entirely failed, not because of the attacks of belligerent Indians or because of lack of preparation on the colonists’ part, but simply because there was no space. Almost the entire coast was already densely populated by Native Indians.

America was densely populated by Native Indians. This map is a snapshot of pre-Columbian cultures in America. COURTESY OF THE UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA.

“At the time of Columbus,” writes Mann, “the Western Hemisphere had been thoroughly painted with the human brush.” 

After that first expedition, no European visited the Mississippi for a century. Then in early 1682, when French colonists explored the Mississippi, they found – nothing. The valley was deserted, with not one Indian village for 200 miles. The smallpox the first expeditions had brought with them had wrecked havoc on native populations. Entire civilizations had crumbled in its wake. 

And with them began crumbling the environment they had closely managed for thousands of years. Plant and animal species imported from the Old World, such as the common rat, clover and bluegrass, and peaches, proliferated over vast swathes of the New World. Native species, usually scrupulously managed by the Indians, burst into the environment. 

“The forest that the first New England colonists thought was primeval and enduring was actually in the midst of violent change and demographic collapse,” Mann writes. “Indeed, this Edenic world (of wilderness) was largely an inadvertent European creation.”

The Takeaway

The Native Americans, far from leaving their land untouched, ran the Western Hemisphere as they saw fit. At the time of Columbus, very little of America existed in a state of original wilderness, and almost none of it remained outside the purview of its human inhabitants. The Indians had, without parallel, created a continent-spanning, sustainable garden, the likes of which can only be rebuilt with the much of the same concerted effort that they put into maintaining it.

Can you think of instances you were exposed to misled narratives of Native American civilizations? What do you think about the new research that suggests that the Indian’s were masters of their land? Leave a comment below!