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Ecological Imperialism. Ecological Imperialism. This is the story of how a few Europeans…. Hernan Cortes. C. Columbus. Ecological Imperialism. …with some nifty but basically cheap weapons…. Ecological Imperialism.

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Ecological Imperialism

  • This is the story of how a few Europeans…

Hernan Cortes

C. Columbus


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Ecological Imperialism

  • …with some nifty but basically cheap weapons…


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Ecological Imperialism

  • …were able to conquer a powerful empire of 10-12 million people in a few years.


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Ecological Imperialism

  • It is the story of diseases like smallpox that killed more Indians than any Spanish gun…


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Ecological Imperialism

  • …and it is the story of plants…


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Ecological Imperialism

  • …and animals that transformed the American ecosystem and undermined Indian society and resistance.



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30-12,000 BC, Ice Age

Global Warming in reverse



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A. Invaders from Mars Alaska)

  • 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


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B. The Environment Strikes Back Alaska)

  • Global warming (hot, starving mammoths)

  • + Hungry and effective hunters (high-tech spears)

  • = 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)


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C. Adaptation Alaska)

  • Indians adapt to diff. climate zones (diversity between groups)

  • Trade between groups individuals specialized on talents (diversity within groups)


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D. Examples of Diversity Alaska)

1. Mississippian societies: trade societies built around rivers; dominate Wisconsin to Louisiana

  • Urban centers

  • Mound builders

  • Tied to Great Lakes (Algonquian + Iroquois; Atlantic)



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Animal Mounds Alaska)


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2. Anasazi from neighbors

  • Ancestors of Hopi and Zuni in Southwest

  • Some of most populated areas in the world at their height: Chaco Canyon and Bandalier Mountain


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Chaco Canyon from neighbors


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Bandelier Mountain from neighbors


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Anasazi: Collapse from neighbors

  • 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)


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II. Europeans: How did they do it? from neighbors

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


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Problems with the Traditional Story from neighbors

  • 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 conquest

  • Many of the conquistadores were not particularly religious men and were in it for the gold, not God


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B. The Socio-Cultural Explanation from neighbors

1. Aztec Confusion

Cortes and his men seemed to fulfill the Aztec prophecy of the return of Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec feathered serpent god


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2. Divide and Conquer emperor,

  • 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 sacrifice


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  • Just as the emperor, 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 Aztecs.

  • 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 conversion


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C. Biological Warfare: Invaders from Mars Redux emperor,

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.


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  • Big germ killers—influenza, tuberculosis, measles, emperor, smallpox—originally animal diseases that mutated and got picked up by humans who lived close to their food source.

  • Europeans eventually got immunity (after Black Death); Indians did not have the time virgin soil epidemic


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  • 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."


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Impacts of disease: 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.”

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)


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Important Note about Biological Warfare 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.”

Because this devastation was unintentional (they wanted slaves and converts), the term genocide does not technically apply, even though the results were essentially the same:

Upwards of 90+% of all Native Americans pre-1492 killed by Europeans (upwards of tens of millions of people)


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III. Ecological Imperialism 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.”

Q: How did a small number of Spaniards hold on to their conquest?

A: With a little help from their friends


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A. Weeds 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.”

Any plant that spreads rapidly and out-competes 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 SE


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What’s the problem with weeds? 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.”

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


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B. Animals 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.”

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 cycle)


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C. Shock Troops 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.”

  • 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”


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D. Keystone Species 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.”

  • 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


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Conclusion 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.”

  • 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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