The Native American Environmental Theory
How the Natives successfully sustained themselves and nature using their cultivation methods.
The Native Americans were better at maintaining their environment than the settlers that arrived later. They did this by their use of environmentally sound agricultural methods. They did not have the technologies that are used now, however they did better at making it so that they did not destroy their dwelling. The Spanish that arrived later in the history of the mesoamerican empires managed to destroy and burn much of the native cultures. There are still some remnants of these natives such as the terraces in the Andes and the milpas and chinampas of the Yucatan. The nature and wildlife thrived while under the rule of the natives, and this is why they did not have so many of the environmental concerns that plague the biosphere such as the atmosphere and soil erosion.
Castile was one of the original kingdoms on the Iberian peninsula. There was also Portugal, Aragon, and the kingdom of Navarra. These kingdoms rivaled each other in terms of power and prestige. There was also a myriad of French kingdoms to the north. These kingdoms posed significant threats to the kingdoms in the peninsula because they were a major rival to Castilian trade and military interests. Castile was the by far the largest and most powerful monarchy among the others in the peninsula. They held the most power and royal fame with the other kingdoms and the Catholic rulers. It was to be Castile to start the seafaring expeditions and to settle settlements on the Caribbean coasts of islands and archipelagos.
The Spanish Empire was first the kingdom of Castile. Queen Isabella I was the ruling monarch of Castile, and was also the ruler who commissioned the initial voyages of Christopher Columbus. Castile was a larger kingdom of its time and fielded one of the largest armies. Many victories on the battlefields led to the gain of southern Italy, Sicily, and the Netherlands. Furthermore, the Reconquista was taking place and Castile had finished the campaign with the conquest of Granada, a Moorish kingdom to the south of Castile. After the Reconquista was over, Aragon, a monarchy that rivaled Castile in terms of strength and prestige, joined forces with Castile by way of a royal marriage between the king of Aragon, Ferdinand II, and Isabella I, the Queen of Castile. This confederation of reigns led to the formation of what was then the Spanish Empire.
With the Spanish Empire formed, the kingdom of Spain was now looking for new ways to increase their royal prestige and attain more wealth. The Hapsburg dynasty controlled the kingdoms of Austria and the lands in Belgium that were before French controlled. They had a lot of financial power to fund expeditions into the oceans. They were on the search for an alternative path to India and the Spice Islands. The original path had traders sailing around the coast of Africa until they reached India, for they had the resources that traders could sell. These were different kinds of spices, dyes, perfumes, exotic animals, and silks. These resources could strike a fortune for those who were mighty enough to get to them. Therefore, it was obvious to the feudal king of Spain to start establishing expeditions to find a new route by sea that they could monopoly.
Off the coast of Morocco, there was a string of islands that the Spanish would colonize as a preliminary venture before their main colonial settlements in the west. These islands were called the Canary Islands, and they were important for the Spanish as another dock for their boats and caravels to leave from. The main port that Columbus set off from, and the port used for importing the goods and resources was from Andalusia. Columbus first discovered the island of Hispanola. The Taino people he found there were not the Indians he was looking for, but he brought some of them with him on his voyage back to Spain. Eventually, other nations started to send explorers and expeditions to the newly discovered lands as well. This led to the Treaty of Tordesillas, which divided the Spanish claims from the Portugese claims, and made it so Brazil was the only land the Spanish Empire was not allowed to colonize.
The Spanish were not known for their tolerant treatment of the natives they encountered. They would take over many native lands and empires. The Aztecs were a large empire in the Mexican mainland that the Spanish would destroy and take over. There was also Spanish Florida, inhabited by the Seminole Indians, that the Spanish would take over. Then, among the different Caribbean Islands, there were several that the Spanish controlled. Hispanola, which later the second half of the island would be French controlled, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and some of the islands of the Antilles, would end up being controlled by the Spanish Empire. The Spanish Empire would then control over half of the southern continent of the Americas, Central America, and a part of Texas and California.
Among the many different settlements and colonies in Spanish America were various wealthy assets that were collected and traded by merchants and the Spanish crown. There were new natural items that could be sold and taxed such as tobacco, gold, silver, sugar, and spices. Since these new settlements were subject to taxation by the Spanish crown, rebellious sentiments and much later in the timespan of these colonies revolts would happen. Spain built an empire from the gold they were getting from the native populations and the land upon which they settled. Their treasury was filled with millions of pesos worth of revenues and taxes. According to Herbert Klein’s book, The American Finances of the Spanish Empire, “It was obvious that in this case, as with so many other royal institutions transplanted to America in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the crown tried to create a more modern and rational structure than existed in Spain itself.” It is clear from this excerpt that the viceroys and bureaucratic policies utilized by the tax collectors and other merchants were essential to the accumulation of wealth by the Spanish Empire.
There were many native American civilizations that existed before the arrival of the Spanish explorers. A notable civilization was called Inca, others were the Tupi, the Taino, and the Aztecs. These cultures were around for hundreds of years and thrived in the jungles and tropical regions in the Americas. For example, the Incas were settled in the mountainous Andes, surrounded by desert and tall, red mountains. They lived off of terraces which they farmed crops off of. According to Susan Niles’ book, The Shape of Inca History, there “…were systems of terraces which were devoted to the production of maize.” (208) The Inca were thus a far advanced civilization with there own agricultural system.
The Inca were in control of a large empire, rivaling that of the Aztec Empire and the Mayan culture. They had agrarian and agricultural marvels that inducted themselves as terraces and farm lands. The Inca Empire took over many different kingdoms that were in the Andes too. The Chimu was a kingdom that was next to the Inca kingdom. They were conquered along with many other smaller kingdoms that inhabited the lands of the Andes. The Inca were intent on magnifying their political influence to conquer as many neighboring kingdoms as they could. This would lead to more wealth and power to bolster their prestige as an empire.
The Inca were ruled by a multitude of rulers and kings, each of them ordained and privileged to be ruler by divine right. Huayna Capac was the most famous of the rulers; the king was ruler during the explorations of the Spanish conquistadors. “He assumed control of an empire that had been, for the most part, carved out in the lifetime of his grandfather Pachacuti and his father, Topa Inca.” (85) There are a few narratives that tell of what Huayna Capac accomplished during his reign. He was able to expand the territory of Inca to its greatest extent, and quelled many rebellions which threatened his rule. He lived in total splendor, and his estate was lavishly adorned with gold and fountains. His palace would be pillaged by Spanish conquistadors later after they had been conquered.
When the Spanish explorers found the Inca, they may have been astonished at the empire which they had befallen. As the new land had been claimed to the throne of Spain, the Spanish were quick to overthrow this empire as soon as they could. They enlisted the help of one of the factions that opposed the reigning leadership, as well as as many of the minor native kingdoms as they could. With these forces and the advantage of their superior weaponry and military tactics, the Spanish would topple the Incan hegemony and claim the empire for Spain.
Most of the history of the Inca was destroyed by the Spaniards when they arrived, but some exists as quipus, which were mnemonic devices used by the Incans to record their history and mythical stories. Quipucamayo were the keepers of these quipus, and were the ones who could decipher them. “We assume the quipus were organized mnemonically, in a system where the size, style, and grouping of knots were meaningful, as were the colors and relationship of cords to one another.” (5) The different fibers and the directions the knots were tied all had a significant impact on what the quipu was about. When the Spanish arrived, they had to get the quipucamayos to read off the tribute figures so that they could understand what kind of historical data the Inca were keeping.
The Incan lands were rich in gold, sugar, corn, and livestock. Their rich culture was adapted by the Spanish settlers. Later there would be a revolutionary rebellion of this land to the Spanish Empire. Countries such as Gran Colombia, Venezuela, and Paraguay would demand their independence from Spanish rule. Before this happened, however, the Inca Empire would serve as an example of an empire that was supplying itself with sustainable, substantive harvests and efficiency.
There are many accounts from the Inca as to what kind of festivals and celebrations they had. For example, the victory dance that lasted for six days, called the cantar by the Spanish, was one of the largest. “After this canto giving praise and thanks to the Sun and also to Inca Yupanqui, greeting him as the Son of the Sun, they sat down again and began to drink the corn beer that they had in great abundance. Then they were brought much coca which was divided among them, and, this done, they arose again, and again performed their canto and dance. This celebration went on six for days.” (11) This is an example of how the Inca would celebrate after a victory in a war or some other great conquest.
The Spanish explorers were in the jungles searching for treasure and resources. They instead found a native empire in the jungles and deserts of the mountainous Andes. They were flourishing in their environment, with stone terraces and fountains dotting the vast landscape. The viceroyalties of the Spanish crown were intent on claiming the Incan territory for the glory of the Spanish empire, and so much battling and strategies would ensue. But where would the Incan empire be if the Spanish had never found them?
The Amerindians were superior in their knowledge of agriculture and irrigation. According to Michael Schuman’s book, Mayan and Aztec Mythology, “Mayan farmers grew maize in small garden plots called milpas (MIHL-pahs), which they cultivated in the middle of raw jungle terrain… Mayan workers purposely stopped farming each milpa after working it for only a few years. This conservation method prevented the soil from being overworked, which would have made it barren and useless for the future cultivation of plants.” (14–15) This meant that the techniques implemented by the Native Americans would have been better overall for the environment, not like the settlers who overworked the soil that resulted in crises such as the dust bowl. The Aztecs and their chinampas were a prime example of environmentally friendly agricultural practices. “Made of layers of silt and reeds, they were held in place by tree roots. On the chinampas, Aztec farmers grew squash, corn, grains, and beans, and for religious ceremonies, flowers.” (18) By using their natural environment to their advantage, the Native Americans were able to thrive off the land yet were able to do so without depleting the soil or using chemicals.
There were native Apache and native Cherokee indians that lived in tepees made of the hides of buffalo and other animals. These tent villages made for a negligible impact on their environment. It was methods comparable to this that enabled the natives to preserve their environment for future use. The milpas are a superb example of what the natives did not only for their own sustainment, but also to maintain the ecosystem. The chinampas of the Aztecs were also a good farming technique that allowed them to not only feed an empire, but to also be in harmony with the environment. These ecology systems were preserving to the land and effective in their provision of the natives, aside from their prowess at hunting animals and garnering materials.
The Native Americans could make temples and courtyards in the middle of the jungle. “They crafted immense pyramids, some of which were two hundred feet high, from stone, earth, and rubble.” (13) Although some of them lived in thatched roof cottages made of clay, members of nobility and tribal kings were owners of their own estate which could be a royal palace. When Cortez arrived the Aztecs were already a vast empire. The Aztec ruler, Montezuma II, feared the new arrivals, and requested that the Spanish explorers not enter their land. But the conquistadors ignored these requests. “In fact, many Aztecs welcomed Cortez, whom they thought to be the god Quetzalcoatl because the feathered serpent god had always been assumed to have fair skin and a beard. Cortez and his army took advantage of this supposed resemblance to the Aztecs’ important god, helping themselves to the Aztecs’ gold and other material riches.” (19) When Cortez and his well-armed forces entered the Aztec land, the Aztec commoners welcomed them.
This eventually led to the Aztec empire being destroyed, along with many of their cultural artifacts. But they were a thriving empire before the Spanish conquistadors arrived. This leaves the question, if the Spanish explorers had not found the Aztecs, or any of the Mesoamerican cultures, where would they be now? Their efficiency at inhabiting the jungle terrain and not eliminating the overgrowth around them was far better than what the settlers who arrived afterward did. In the end, it would appear that in the modern world, if the land were settled the way the Native Americans did, it would do well for the environment.