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The Pristine Myth may have begun with Christopher Columbus upon his return to Spain after his first voyage. The lifestyle of the natives in the Caribbean region had made it seem like the original paradise to him. As reports of the discoveries in what was eventually seen as the New World filtered across Europe, there arose the idea that the New World was pristine, unlike the Europe that was close at hand. It became a favorite device of social criticism to hold aloft the pristine or innocent natives there as a mirror exposing the faults of Europeans. This same method of social criticism has been practiced in America and elsewhere in the New World.
The reality is that while undeveloped by European standards, the New World as known to Columbus or as later described by Charles Darwin and others was not pristine. It had been modified to a degree by the Native Americans. When the first people came to the Americas, probably 30,000 or more years ago, the continents were indeed pristine. However, by the end of the last Ice Age many species had disappeared. The megafauna of mastodons, saber-toothed tigers, camels, horses, the dire wolf, and other animals vanished. It is now suspected that either hunting or changes in the environment wrought by fires or other means killed off these animals. There is probably no way to know what species of plants may have been lost.
As a consequence, while it is tempting to see the great forests of North America as pristine when the first colonists arrived at Jamestown, or in Canada, the reality is that the Native Americans had already made significant changes to the environment. What these changes were may never be fully known. For decades it has been taught in American schools that when the colonists arrived they found an untouched wilderness; it was a Garden of Eden that was soon spoiled by the settlers. Teaching this way “mirrors” bad practices from good environmental practices.
There is now a growing body of evidence that suggests that the modifications made in the Western Hemisphere in the pre-Columbian era were significant. Some have conjectured that the Amazon rain forest is an artifact of human effort. Increasing numbers of archeologists, anthropologists, geographers, and others are now viewing the Native Americans as less than ecologically pure hunters and farmers.
The pristine myth is important to many environmental groups because their agenda is to restore wilderness areas to an original pristine condition. It allows them to argue that the environment began pristine, was spoiled, and should now be restored.
- Michael P. Branch, Reading the Roots: American Nature Writing Before Walden (University of Georgia Press, 2004);
- Susan Kollin, Nature’s State: Imagining Alaska as the Last Frontier (University of North Carolina Press, 2001);
- Thomas R. Vale, , Fire, Native Peoples, and the Natural Landscape (Island Press, 2002).