The evolutionary history of vertebrate nonhuman animals such as mammals in what is now Latin America extends back tens of millions of years. Given that anatomically modern humans first appeared in Africa a mere 200,000 years ago and would not reach Latin America until some 12,000 years ago, nonhuman animals in the region evolved for most of their history without interference from human activities. Once they appeared, humans began to shape the history of the region’s animals in profound ways. In fact, one could argue that animal history in Latin America has been a story of increasing human impact; from the Paleo-Indians, who may have driven countless species of megafauna to extinction; to the agrarian societies that domesticated species such as dogs, turkeys, and llamas (or tolerated the animals’ self-domestication); to the radical transformations brought about by the Columbian Exchange; to the industrialization process of the last two centuries. But animal history in the region is also marked by adaptation and agency on the part of animals, who have influenced the course of human history. This dynamic and adaptive human–animal relationship has been pushed to the limit during extinction pulses, manifest in the currently accelerating biodiversity crisis. Environmental history makes the convincing case that any historical account that neglects the environment offers an inaccurate depiction of the past. By the same token, animal historians suggest that a more complete understanding of history requires redefining its boundaries to include the often underappreciated story of nonhuman species and their interrelationships with human societies.
Animals in Latin American History
Agriculture and Biodiversity in Latin America in Historical Perspective
Latin America is thought to be the world’s most biodiverse region, but as in the rest of the world, the number of species and the size of their populations is generally in sharp decline. Most experts consider agriculture to be the most important cause of biodiversity decline. At one extreme of policy argument regarding biodiversity conservation are those who argue that the only path to species protection is the establishment of many more and larger “protected areas” in which human activities will be severely restricted. On the remaining land agriculture will be carried out largely with the presently prevailing methods of “industrial agriculture,” including heavy reliance on synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, heavy machine use, large-scale irrigation schemes, limited crop diversity, and crops genetically engineered to maximize returns from these tools and techniques. Those who argue for these policies largely accept that industrial agriculture of this sort is severely hostile to biodiversity, but argue that the high productivity of such methods makes it possible to limit agriculture to a relatively small land base, leaving the rest for protected areas and other human activities. On the other side of the argument are those who argue that agricultural techniques are either available or can be created to make agricultural areas more favorable to species survival. They argue that even with a desirable expansion of protected areas, such reserves cannot successfully maintain high biodiversity levels if protected reserves are not complemented by an agriculture more friendly to species survival and migration. The policy arguments on these issues are of major human and biological importance. They are also very complex and depend on theoretical perspectives and data that do not provide definitive guidance. One way to enrich the debate is to develop a specifically historical perspective that illuminates the relationship between human actions and species diversity. In Latin America, humans have been modifying landscapes and species composition of landscapes for thousands of years. Even in areas of presently low human population density and extraordinarily high species diversity, such as remaining tropical rainforests, humans may have been active in shaping species composition for millennia. After 1492, human population levels in Latin America plummeted with the introduction of Old-World diseases. It is often assumed that this led to a blossoming of species diversity, but the historical evidence from 1492 to the present strongly suggests the combination of European technologies and the integration of agriculture into world markets meant more damaging use of soils, widespread deforestation, and subsequent decline in species numbers. The exploitation and consequent despoliation of Latin American resources were integral to colonialism and intensified later by national governments focused on rapid economic growth. High species diversity remained in areas that were too difficult to exploit and/or were used by indigenous populations or smallholders whose production techniques were often favorable to species survival. Many of these techniques provide clues for how agriculture might be reshaped to be more friendly both to biodiversity and social equity.
Disease, Ecology, and the Environment in Colonial Mexico
Bradley Skopyk and Elinor G. K. Melville
The onset of Spanish imperial rule in Mexico in 1521 had profound consequences well beyond the political and cultural spheres. It also altered Mexico’s environment, reconstituting the region’s ecology as new fauna, flora, and microorganisms were added and as the population dynamics of native Mexican biota fluctuated in response to Old World arrivals. While the consequences of myriad interactions between native and non-native species were vast and complex, it was the decimation of indigenous persons by pathogens that was one of the first biological consequences of colonization (in fact, occurring first in 1520, one year before the fall of the Aztec state) and one of the most important. Mexican human populations were reduced by 80 to 90 percent, effecting cascading ecological consequences across the physical and biological geography of Mexico. Forests regenerated, terraced slopes degraded, and much of the Mexican landscape lost its anthropogenic aspect. Simultaneously, ungulate introductions transformed Mexican flora and likely initiated soil erosion in some regions that, when transported to fluvial environments, disrupted the flow of rivers. On the other hand, pigs, sheep, goats, horses, and other ungulates altered plant communities through selective seed dispersion. New economic pursuits such as brick making and silver mining increased demand for heat energy that, in an unprecedented manner, encouraged intensive forest usage and, probably, regional deforestation, although empirical data on historical forest cover are still lacking. Severe climate variability, of a scale not experienced for at least five hundred years and perhaps many millennia, occurred simultaneously with colonial-induced ecological change. A significant conquest-era drought was followed by one of the coolest and wettest periods of the Holocene; a strong pluvial in the Mexican context lasted from 1540 to around 1620. Subsequent anomalies of both temperature (cold) and precipitation (either wet or dry) occurred in the 1640s and 1650s, and from the 1690s until about 1705. Together, these climate anomalies are known as the core Little Ice Age, and initiated agrarian transitions, hazardous flooding, prolonged droughts, epidemics, epizootics, and recurring agrarian crises that destabilized human health and spurred high rates of mortality. Soil degradation and suppressed forest cover are also likely outcomes of this process. Although debate abounds regarding the timing, extent, and causes of soil and water degradation, there is little doubt that extensive degradation occurred and destabilized late-colonial and early-Republic societies.