The current and most widely accepted American definition of wilderness comes from the Wilderness Act of 1964: “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Many of us are aware that the origins of the wilderness concept can be traced to the writings of Henry David Thoreau and the expressions of John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt; the concept is certainly ingrained in the American consciousness. Our view of the role of humanity in wilderness may go back even further, to Jean Jacques Rousseau’s vision of the “noble savage” during the European Enlightenment.
However, modern science—that is, archeology aided by historical reports and carbon dating—strongly suggests that the existence of wilderness for as much as half of the contemporary Holocene—6,000 years—is a romantic fiction. The Holocene itself is an interglacial warming period repeatedly occurring over hundreds of thousands of years and caused by cyclic variations in the earth’s orbit about the sun. Geophysicists and climate scientists have recently coined a new term, the Anthropocene, the age when human effects on the environment exceed natural ones. Just when this age set in is still debated, but it may be as much as 6,000 or as little as 1,000 years ago. North and South Americans have been living in it since well before Europeans made permanent settlements here.
Thoreau, living in the first half of the 19th century, certainly found his wilderness, but those who predated him by 200 years found something else entirely. In North America, they found nearly two thirds of the continental landscape human-engineered by fire. Thoreau observed the consequences of the near obliteration of the North American aboriginal population by European diseases, with 50 to 90 percent mortality rates. Consensus estimates of the pre-Columbian population of North America, excluding Mexico, are upwards of 30 million, with high estimates in the 100 million-range. This is not as outrageous as it may sound, as the population of the Mayan lands during their Classical period is strongly believed to be two to three times what it is today. The Bolivian and Peruvian Alti-Plano also show evidence of denser populations in antiquity than exist today. For that matter, even the Amazon may have been far more densely populated than they are now.
Indigenous development of North America was clearly evident to 16th-century explorers and colonists. Giuseppe Verrazano reported both banks of the Hudson River on fire for scores of miles; the same was observed seasonally by subsequent Dutch explorers. French explorers in western Canada reported seasonal fires for many days’ travel. John Smith of the Jamestown colony reported that the nearby woods were open like English parks and that he could ride at a gallop for long distances. French explorers in the Ohio region reported similarly. American Indians used fire to shape a semi-continental game park where buffalo were found as far east as Georgia, as well as to make room for maize fields, such as those around Iroquois villages that were as large as six square miles.
Hernan de Soto’s expedition in the southeast reported a dense population, with villages in close proximity to one another. These were the remnants of the Kahokia civilization, whose capital, located near St. Louis, peaked in population at around 1,200 and was larger than any city north of the Rio Grande until the end of the 18th century.
All of this was gone by the beginning of the 18th century and into the 19th—with global consequences. With nearly all the Indians dead, no one was left to maintain the landscape, and without continental-scale fires, carbon was fixed in vegetation and no longer warmed the atmosphere. Thoreau’s wilderness appeared. The Little Ice Age resulted, exacerbated by other factors. Crop failures in France provoked the French Revolution, Boston experienced the Year without Summer in 1814 and Napoleon’s troops froze to death, retreating from Moscow.
With some exceptions, of which Kahokia was one, the indigenous peoples of North, Central and South Americas successfully engineered the landscape well for over 1,000 years. They learned from their mistakes. They did not live in a wilderness, but rather actively controlled their environment. We do not know exactly how they did it, but I would guess that a form of natural selection determined which of their many experiments worked, and their practices were communicated throughout the continent by trade routes from Hudson’s Bay south to the central valley of Mexico. (They did not have insurance, which would have allowed them to repeat their failures like we do.)
Thoreau’s romantic wilderness is an anomaly, as is an industrial landscape heedless of the laws of nature. We must think carefully, build carefully and never protect stupidity.
Chet Seligman is a 42-year resident of Point Reyes Station and a recently retired computational biologist with a lifelong interest in history.