Wilderness and Political Ecology: A Review

My book review of Charles Kay and Randy Simmons’ important book, Wilderness and Political Ecology

Wilderness and Political Ecology. Charles Kay and Randy Simmons (eds.).  University of Utah Press, Salt Lake City.  Illus., bibliography.  ISBN 0-87480-719-0.

The thesis of this book is stated at the beginning:  “Most environmental laws and regulations…assume a certain fundamental state of nature, as does all environmnental philosophy, at least in the United States….  Included in these core beliefs is the view that the Americas were a wilderness untouched by the hand of man…native people are seldom mentioned….  This view of native people…is not scientifically correct.  Moreover we suggest that it is also racist” (Kay and Simmons, “Preface,” p. xi; their italics).  Native people were considerably more numerous than most writers assumed (at least in the early 20th century), and were intensively using and affecting the environment.  Therefore (they continue), we must not only change the received wisdom, we must change the policies.  Overpopulation of game animals at parks like Yellowstone, and fire suppression leading to unnatural fuel buildup and consequent conflagrations, are examples of undesired consequences of forgetting Native American impacts and management strategies.  Indeed, humans have been affecting North America for the entire time that the current climatic regime has been in existence, so whole landscapes and even species have evolved in a human-altered world.

Readers of this journal will need no introduction to these ideas, and, I would suppose, no convincing.  This book is only the latest in a long series of books, many of them written by our readers, that have made these points in some detail.  I will, therefore, confine my attentions to the particular viewpoints of the authors.  This being a collection of papers, several different views are represented.  There is one common and distinctive theme:  North American Native hunting of animals.  All authors agree that hunting had a major impact on animal populations.

Paul Martin begins the book by reiterating, with some new arguments, his well-known hypothesis that Paleoindian hunters exterminated (directly or indirectly) all or most of the species that became extinct at the end of the Pleistocene.  Evidence (e.g. Clovis mammoth kill sites) remains spotty, but, as he notes, it is significant that there is any evidence at all; scavengers at the time of the kill, and 11,000 years of geological processes since, would not leave us much.  The main addition to Martin’s traditional arguments is increased consideration of the cases of Australia, New Zealand, and Madagascar, where there is little doubt that human presence soon led to crashes of large animal diversity, and to the more vexed cases of Eurasia and Africa.  Australia, in particular, seems to be a case in which hunter invasion of a continent was soon followed by massive extinctions.  (New Zealand and Madagascar, being islands formerly lacking in large predators, are less relevant.)

Kay, in his contributions, provides some important back-up arguments that improve the Martin case.  Kay efficiently models humans as top predators, provides data on other top predators, brings up the significance of the mammoth kills (there are many of them in comparison to what we might expect of open-air kills in a brief time period), and more.

Martin’s hypothesis remains, however, unproved, and very difficult to test.  For example, it depends on the assumption that American animals were too naïve to realize the threat at hand, and flee; they stood and got knocked on the head, like the dodos of Mauritius.  This is rather counterintuitive, given that they were being pursued by lions, dire wolves, sabretooths, giant bears, and several other predators—though Martin (and Kay) point out that humans were “different.”  There are also the points raised by Grayson (Grayson and Meltzer 2002), including the lack of evidence for contemporaneity of many of the extinct species with humans, and the extinction of many aquatic birds that surely were not being overhunted but that were very susceptible to the post-Pleistocene Altithermal droughts.  These and other counter-arguments are answered by Martin and Kay with such lawyerly skill that one gets the uncomfortable feeling that there is no conceivable way of falsifying the hypothesis.  Since there is most certainly no way of proving it either—whether by replication, experiment, or case/control comparison—the hypothesis appears to be completely untestable.  So do all the counter-hypotheses.  (These range from blaming it all on climate change or a mix of climate change and human hunting to new zoonoses and the coming of new predators such as timber wolves and grizzly bears that came into North America about when humans did.)   Personally, I cannot imagine that human hunting had much effect on the dwarf pronghorns, llamas, flat-headed peccaries, and such, but I cannot imagine that humans did not eliminate the big, slow, meaty animals like proboscideans and ground sloths.  But we shall never know.

The next paper is by Michael Alvard.  He begins by maintaining that “many scientists and resource managers view native peoples of the past and present as wise stewards…the data do not support this claim” (p. 29).  He cites—and does not refute—some authors who provide a great deal of data that does support the claim (for at least some groups).  His own paper provides no data, but, rather, a theoretical discussion.  He maintains that humans evolved without having a concept of conservation, but rather were optimal foragers on a day-to-day basis; however, over the last 10,000 years, they learned to conserve (for which, as he points out, they needed to have some control over the resource and some reason to want to keep it around).  Domestication provides a final case of this process.

Alvard makes no reference to Native Americans, who presumably were in as good a position to learn as anyone else.  Native Americans did in fact domesticate animals—quite a few species of them (largely in South America, to be sure).  They also learned to manage wild populations, as almost every ethnographer of North American Native peoples has found.  Often the management was exceedingly imperfect by preservationist standards—but those standards are not the appropriate ones here.

There is a serious problem in applying optimal foraging models to any animal that looks to the long term, even ones like squirrels and jays that merely store nuts.  Such an animal must somehow decide how much energy to put into storage for the future as opposed to consumption now.  This immediately opens up the feasible set from one best-possible solution to an infinite number of solutions (depending on the discount rate, itself dependent on many variables the animal must assess).  Alvard discusses this, yet writes as if optimal foraging can automatically give us perfect scientific solutions to questions of hunting and foraging.  He does not even discuss the tendency of humans to hunt for fun or to impress women, to prefer some animal foods to others (with different foods being preferred in different cultures), and all the other things that make simple economistic models dubious.

The third chapter is by Jack Broughton, who provides an able discussion, very well supported by evidence, of hunting and depletion of animals (including fish) in California’s long archaeological record.  This chapter is notable for its trenchant critique of Martin’s overkill hypothesis (pp. 66-68).

California continues to receive attention in the following article, by William Hildebrandt and Terry Jones.  They argue, convincingly, that Californian Natives depleted mainland rookeries of pinnipeds, driving them to isolated islands.  In the process, they discuss several other maritime changes in which heavy human use is implicated.  Climate change (again) provides a confounding factor; we shall never know how much of the depletion of marine biotic resources was caused by human action.  Hildebrandt and Jones provide enough evidence to convince the most hardened skeptic that humans did some of the damage, probably much of it.  However, an indication of the problematic nature of the case is shown by the use of the word “may” six times on one page (“The hunter may change his comportment…,” etc., etc.; p. 124).  All the assumptions so marked are reasonable enough, but one must remember that they are assumptions.

Yet again in California, William Preston argues (as do some other authors) for a major rebound of animal populations after introduced epidemics (to say nothing of genocide) wiped out almost all the Native American hunters.  Here and elsewhere, Preston has established beyond reasonable doubt that epidemic diseases of humans ran well ahead of white settlers in much of North America.  Human population crashed.  Perhaps animal diseases ran ahead of settlement too—a point not discussed here—but, in any case, animals were freed from human hunting pressure over much of the hemisphere.  The extent of the resulting rebound of game populations cannot now be established; it was apparently significant, but whether game increased by one, two or even three orders of magnitude remains unknowable.  One surmises that the size of rebound varied by species.

The eastern United States receives attention from Thomas Neumann, who expands attention beyond hunting to look at earth-mound building, fire, and agriculture.  All these had their effect.  The sheer level of mound-building, alone, puts to rest any thought that Native North Americans did not massively affect the environment!

Gerald Williams then provides an excellent review of the use of fire in Native North America.  Readers of this journal will find little new or surprising here, but the chapter is extremely valuable, in context, for drawing information together and making the case for what surely was by far the most important way in which the Indians influenced “nature.”  Neumann and Williams, for instance, both mention the way in which maple and other trees encroached on the oak-hickory forests of the eastern United States once fire was suppressed.  It is clearly possible that the entire oak-hickory and oak-chestnut hickory formation, which dominated most of what is now the eastern United States when the white settlers arrived, was deliberately created and maintained!  (I am prepared to believe this after my work in Quintana Roo, where the forest has been shaped by burning and managing over thousands of years.)

Charles Kay then provides a general argument that human hunting controlled the populations of large game animals in North America.  He works from many lines of evidence, each convincing in its own right, and all mutually supportive.  One can, as usual, quibble with minor details.  For instance, he notes that there was little large game in Yellowstone when explorers got there in the mid-19th century, and that there were fewer bison on the plains than we used to think.  What happened to the rebound that Preston established?  The answer, of course, is that the explorers came after the fur trappers, and after the Native Americans got guns and moved rapidly into the bison-hunting business.  Kay has put himself into the position of arguing that both large game populations and small game populations prove the Indians took a great deal.  Once again, the reader fears that such lawyers’ arguments are untestable and unfalsifiable.

Kay also maintains that “Native Americans had no concept of maximum sustained yield…and did not manage ungulate populations to produce the greatest offtake,” which is surely true, and concludes that they were therefore not conservationists.  The trouble with this is that many North American Native peoples (certainly the ones I have actually lived with) do conserve—but they do it by the simpler and more easily managed expedient of taking no more than necessary, leaving a few animals to replenish the population.  This is not nearly as effective as modern game management practices, but such modern practices were neither practical nor necessary in aboriginal conditions.  The game was often killed back to a low level, but Kay’s constant use of terms like “overhunting” and “overharvesting” are his evaluative judgements, not the Native peoples’ view.  Even when cheaters and poachers overharvested by anyone’s standards (Native or modern), one must make a difference between failed conservation and no conservation.

Failure can lead to trying again, perhaps explaining the regular swings in animal abundance in some archaeological records—e.g. shellfish in California.  After all, the failure of abalone conservation in modern California does not prove modern Californians have no concept of conservation; it just proves we didn’t try hard enough.

In the final chapter, Kay drives home the policy point.  North America in 1492 was not a virgin land untouched by human hands.  Quite the opposite:  it was profoundly altered by human action over 11,000 years.  Even though he is usually negative, he argues that we should return to many Native techniques of management.  For instance, he argues for Native American hunting in national parks (p. 237)!  He also notes the desperate need to return to controlled burning in American forests.  He would like to see “wilderness areas” renamed as “roadless areas” (p. 259).  This is surely rhetorical overkill; wilderness areas are not, and never have been, claimed as virgin and untouched.  Many are full of marks not only of Native use but also of logging, mining, traveling, and even farming by recent settlers.  This does not stop them from being wilderness.  One also remembers that hunting and many other activities are allowed in such areas.  Controlled burning and related practices remain controversial—an issue to which the book under review can contribute a great deal.

Kay ends on another note of rhetoric:  “No doubt some native people may find this book offensive because, in part, it deals with data and science, not religious views of nature….  Science, after all, has steadily replaced other interpretations of the natural world…” (p. 260).  Kay seems unaware that much factual, even scientific, knowledge of animals by Native Americans gets coded as “religion” by anthropologists, because the latter think it sounds “supernatural”—whether or not the local people thought about it that way (see Rappaport 1984; Gonzalez 2001).  More to the point, he is ignoring the dubious “science” in the present book.  Some of the chapters have firm, data-driven conclusions (Broughton, Preston, and Williams are impressive in this regard), but some do not.  Martin’s claims are untestable; Alvard’s equations are certain enough, but have an infinite number of possible solutions; most of the archaeological data are controversial or provide only the very vaguest of numbers.  Science this may be, but much of it is no more concrete or “true” than Old Man Coyote.

One also would have thought that “science” involves some sort of attempt to look comprehensively—if not objectively, at least with minimal bias.  Yet this book seems designed to showcase the very worst of Native American managing.  It does not always do so (Neumann on agriculture, and Williams on fire, are clearly more positive), and the essays are more moderate and reasonable than some in the current literature.  Yet there is rather little on plant management other than by fire (see e.g. Blackburn and Anderson 1993), very little on agriculture (for which one must seek out Doolittle 2000), little on actual hunting strategies (e.g. Inuit and Koyukon; see e.g. Nelson 1983), little on fish management in the Pacific Northwest, and so on.

Part of the problem is that no ethnographers are allowed into this game park.  (Alvard has ethnographic experience, but in another continent and from a biologist’s viewpoint.)  In addition, all serious consideration of claims about Native conservation is ruled out of consideration.  Contra Kay, archaeology cannot possibly prove either conservation or the lack thereof—unless we accept his exceedingly restrictive definition of “conservation,” by which even today’s highly regulated hunting in California would not qualify.

Kay’s use of the term reveals one reason for earlier myths of the ecological Indian (cf. Krech 1999) and the opposite current myth of the wasteful savage:  The comparison set has changed.  Early-day explorers and ethnographers were contrasting “the Indian” with the market-gunners, kill-for-sport fanatics, and settlers of the 19th century.  In those days, even useless animals were shot on sight, for target practice or just to get rid of them.  (This was still the virtually universal attitude in rural America when I was growing up.)  Compared to such attitudes, the Native custom of taking no more than necessary seemed the height of forbearance and restraint.  Today, in academic circles, one is much more apt to meet preservationists, moral vegetarians, and animal-rights activists.  By these new standards, the Native Americans look bloody-handed.

What is the truth?  The truth is that Native Americans were and are people.  They manage sometimes well, sometimes poorly.  They have differing standards, and conform to varying degrees to the standards they do have.  In Quintana Roo I have documented dramatic differences in game management success among neighboring, closely comparable communities, all with the same Maya heritage of explicit conservation ethics.

This book, on balance, is an important one.  It provides valuable data and some well-argued, cogent points about the implications of those data.  Its core of long, detailed, factual chapters is really excellent, and deserves wide attention.  Its assumptions, theories, biases, and wide claims deserve critical appraisal from specialists.

I can only express a personal wish for more balanced treatment in works on indigenous management.  As in so many other debates, from abortion rights to the value of genetically engineered foods, extreme polarization is the order of the day, and fairness is not even a concept.  The myths of the noble savage and the wasteful savage have both been with us far too long.  They must be replaced by the genuine data-driven science that Kay and Simmons promise but do not always deliver.

E. N. Anderson

Dept. of Anthropology

University of California

Riverside, CA 92521-0418

Blackburn, Thomas, and Kat Anderson (eds.).  1993.  Before the Wilderness.  Ballona Press, Socorro, NM.

Doolittle, William.   2000.  Cultivated Landscapes of Native North America.  Oxford University Press, New York.

Gonzalez, Roberto.  2001. Zapotec Science.  University of Texas Press, Austin.

Grayson, Donald, and David J. Meltzer.  2002.  “Clovis Hunting and Large Mammal Extinction:  A Critical Review of the Evidence.”  Journal of World Prehistory 16:313-360.

Krech, Shepard, III.  1999.  The Ecological Indian: Myth and Reality.  Norton, New York.

Nelson, Richard.  1983.  Make Prayers to the Raven.  University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Rappaport, Roy.  1984.  Pigs for the Ancestors.  2nd edn.  Yale University Press, New Haven.

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