Ecological Imperialism - San Ramon Valley High School

Ecological Imperialism
Ecological Imperialism
• This is the story of how a few Europeans…
C. Columbus
Hernan Cortes
Ecological Imperialism
• …with some nifty but basically cheap
Ecological Imperialism
• …were able to conquer a powerful empire
of 10-12 million people in a few years.
Ecological Imperialism
• It is the story of diseases like smallpox that
killed more Indians than any Spanish gun…
Ecological Imperialism
• …and it is the story of plants…
Ecological Imperialism
• …and animals that transformed the
American ecosystem and undermined
Indian society and resistance.
I. The Role of Geography
30-12,000 BC, Ice Age
Global Warming in reverse
Mostly, though:
probably boat
(sites in Florida
before Alaska)
A. Invaders from Mars
• When the Indians arrived in
the Americas they might as
well have been from Mars:
biologically the two worlds
had been separated for
millions of years no
competition, stupid prey
early success and pop. growth
B. The Environment Strikes Back
• Global warming (hot, starving mammoths)
• + Hungry and effective hunters (high-tech
• = Pleistocene overkill (extinction of almost
all megafauna)
•  transition to agriculture (less healthy
Indians, complex societies + class divisions;
developed + spread by women) + no
domestication of animals (wait for it)
C. Adaptation
• Indians adapt to diff. climate zones (diversity
between groups)
• Trade between groups individuals
specialized on talents (diversity within
D. Examples of Diversity
1. Mississippian societies: trade societies
built around rivers; dominate Wisconsin to
– Urban centers
– Mound builders
– Tied to Great Lakes (Algonquian + Iroquois;
Cahokia (30,000 in 1200 AD)
Animal Mounds
• Cahokia collapses from over-farming,
drought, competition from neighbors
disperse to plains and prairie villages
– Replaced by Coosa metropole (GA)
– Rise + fall of metropolis-based societies:
2. Anasazi
• Ancestors of Hopi and Zuni in Southwest
• Some of most populated areas in the world
at their height: Chaco Canyon and
Bandalier Mountain
Chaco Canyon
Bandelier Mountain
Anasazi: Collapse
• Chaco Canyon collapsed in part because of
a sustained drought inadequate food
surplus unable to mobilize labor,
religious ceremonies, trade dispersion to
smaller villages nearer water (Pueblos)
II. Europeans: How did they do it?
A. The Traditional Explanations:
– 1. Superior technology:
• Steel weapons (swords and armor)
• Guns (flintlock muskets, cannons)
– 2. Written language
• Superior communication abilities
– 3. Conquest Religion
• Catholicism motivated the conquistadores to
conquer in the name of God
Problems with the Traditional
• Spanish armor was as much an obstacle as an aid
in the dense forests and heat of Mexico; Aztec
swords could decapitate a horse
• Spanish guns were inaccurate and often misfired
• Cannons were dramatic but ineffective against an
enemy that did not fight in tight formations
• The Aztecs had very effective communication
systems developed over hundreds of years of
• Many of the conquistadores were not particularly
religious men and were in it for the gold, not God
B. The Socio-Cultural Explanation
1. Aztec Confusion
Cortes and his men seemed to fulfill the Aztec
prophecy of the return of Quetzalcoatl,
the Aztec feathered serpent god
• Cortes used this misperception to his
advantage. The Aztec emperor,
Montezuma, upon hearing that
Quetzalcoatl had returned, actually invited
Cortes into the capital city of
2. Divide and Conquer
• Perhaps more importantly,
Cortes used the Quetzalcoatl
myth to recruit Indians to help
the Spanish.
• The Aztec empire, like all other
empires, was built by
conquering other peoples. The
Aztecs demanded tribute from
these conquered peoples,
sometime in form of human
• Just as the Algonquians in the
Great Lakes region eventually
joined with the French for
protection against the Iroquois
(who then sided w/the English),
thousands of conquered Indians
joined Cortes in attacking the
• Among those who joined Cortes
was a woman named Malinche
who served as guide and translator
for Cortes.
– Mayan princess, enslaved by Aztecs
– Bears Cortes’ children; believes saving
Indians from Hell + disease via
C. Biological Warfare: Invaders
from Mars Redux
Unlike peoples in the Old World, Native
Americans did not domesticate very many
animals (Pleistocene overkill); in particular
they did not have pigs or chickens.
• Big germ killers—influenza, tuberculosis,
measles, smallpox—originally animal
diseases that mutated and got picked up by
humans who lived close to their food
• Europeans eventually got immunity (after
Black Death); Indians did not have the
time virgin soil epidemic
• 1580, Thomas Hariot, Roanoke: “[The Indians]
began to die very fast, and many in [a] short
space; in some townes about twentie, in some
fourtie, in some sixtie, & in one sixe score, which
in trueth was very manie in respect to their
numbers....The disease also was so strange that
they neither knew what it was, nor how to cure it;
the like by report of the oldest men in the countrey
never happened before, time out of mind.”
• 1663, New England colonist: "it pleased God to
visite these Indeans with a great sickness, and
such a mortalitie that, of 1000, above 900 and a
halfe of them dyed, and many of them did rott
above ground for want of buriall."
Impacts of disease:
1. Aztec leaders overwhelmed by 1) confusion of
Quetzalcoatl myth, 2) “treason” of tributaries,
and 3) massive deaths from disease
2. War on the Beaver: historian Calvin Martin
argues near-extinction beaver Great Lakes result
rejection of taboos as inexplicable disease,
conversion, and loss of elders undermined
Micmac society kill beavers as enemy
bringing on devastation
3. Expansion of Indian wars: some tribes largely
unaffected prey on weaker need for new
alliances (e.g. Iroquois + Algonquians or
Powhaten or Squanto)
Important Note about Biological
Because this devastation was unintentional
(they wanted slaves and converts), the term
genocide does not technically apply, even
though the results were essentially the
Upwards of 90+% of all Native Americans
pre-1492 killed by Europeans (upwards of
tens of millions of people)
III. Ecological Imperialism
Q: How did a small number of Spaniards hold
on to their conquest?
A: With a little help from their friends
A. Weeds
Any plant that spreads rapidly and outcompetes others on disturbed soil.
Native plant life had no resistance to the
plants—especially weeds—that the
Europeans introduced to the New World.
Example: Kentucky bluegrass, introduced by
English around 1685 now covers entire
What’s the problem with weeds?
Weeds replace native plants less
food for native animals (toxins)
less food for Indians starvation
and further Indian population
decline (vicious cycle)
(20th Century San Joaquin Valley: introduced
plants 63% of grasslands, 66% of woodland,
54% of chaparral)
C3 vs. C4 plants
B. Animals
Europeans brought barnyard animals with
them to the New World: horses, sheep,
goats, domesticated dogs, chickens, cows,
and pigs
Europeans let animals forage free for food
compete w/native animals (Indians
severely punished for harming) + tear up
the soil more weeds (see above vicious
C. Shock Troops
• Animals, weeds, and disease traveled ahead
of Europeans clearing the way: Europeans
often discovered empty lands because
Indians had died/moved away
• Europeans (esp. English) used emptiness to
justify further conquest: Indians didn’t use
the land, so why should they have it?
– False assumption about the “wilderness”
D. Keystone Species
• Indians manipulated environment (fire) in
ways necessary for them to thrive
Americas more a garden than wilderness
• Weakening of Indians further disruption
of eco-system vicious cycle
• Europeans were able to conquer the New World
and maintain control over it in large part because
of certain environmental advantages—disease
immunity, opportunistic plants and animals—that
increased the limited cultural and technological
advantages that the Europeans brought with them.
• Neo-Europe
– Proof: Africa
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