Throughout history, food needs bonded humans to nature. The transition to agriculture constituted slow, but revolutionary ecological transformations. After 1500 ce, agricultural goods, as well as pests that undermined them, dominated the exchange of species between four continents. In the United States, increasingly more commercial efforts simplified ecosystems. Improved technologies and market mechanisms facilitated surpluses in the 19th century that fueled industrialization and urbanization. In the 20th century, industrial agriculture involved expensive machinery and chemical pesticides and fertilizers in pursuit of higher outputs and profits, while consumers’ relations with their food sources and nature became attenuated.
Kathleen A. Brosnan and Jacob Blackwell
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.
David S. Jones
Few developments in human history match the demographic consequences of the arrival of Europeans in the Americas. Between 1500 and 1900 the human populations of the Americas were traBnsformed. Countless American Indians died as Europeans established themselves, and imported Africans as slaves, in the Americas. Much of the mortality came from epidemics that swept through Indian country. The historical record is full of dramatic stories of smallpox, measles, influenza, and acute contagious diseases striking American Indian communities, causing untold suffering and facilitating European conquest. Some scholars have gone so far as to invoke the irresistible power of natural selection to explain what happened. They argue that the long isolation of Native Americans from other human populations left them uniquely susceptible to the Eurasian pathogens that accompanied European explorers and settlers; nothing could have been done to prevent the inevitable decimation of American Indians. The reality, however, is more complex. Scientists have not found convincing evidence that American Indians had a genetic susceptibility to infectious diseases. Meanwhile, it is clear that the conditions of life before and after colonization could have left Indians vulnerable to a host of diseases. Many American populations had been struggling to subsist, with declining populations, before Europeans arrived; the chaos, warfare, and demoralization that accompanied colonization made things worse. Seen from this perspective, the devastating mortality was not the result of the forces of evolution and natural selection but rather stemmed from social, economic, and political forces at work during encounter and colonization. Getting the story correct is essential. American Indians in the United States, and indigenous populations worldwide, still suffer dire health inequalities. Although smallpox is gone and many of the old infections are well controlled, new diseases have risen to prominence, especially heart disease, diabetes, cancer, substance abuse, and mental illness. The stories we tell about the history of epidemics in Indian country influence the policies we pursue to alleviate them today.
There are many wild rice species, but only two are domesticated. The most widely known is Asian rice, Oryza sativa. Domesticated in China approximately 10,000 years ago, it has been a primary staple in Asia for millennia, becoming by the 20th century one of the world’s most consumed cereals. Less known is Oryza glaberrima, or African rice, which was not recognized as a unique species until the mid-20th century. Glaberrima’s history begins not in Asia, but in the inland delta of West Africa’s Niger River, where it was domesticated some 3,500 years ago. Africans adapted glaberrima to a variety of landscapes and developed specialized farming practices that advanced its diffusion elsewhere in the continent, notably to wetland swamps and the tropical coastal region between Senegal and Cameroon. Cultivated there for millennia, African rice became (and still is) a principal dietary staple of West Africa. Women play a major role in rice cultivation. They plant, harvested, mill, and cook this important food crop. Since the so-called Age of Discovery, Oryza glaberrima has been entwined with the history of transatlantic slavery, which lasted from the mid-15th century to the last quarter of the 19th century. Over 400 years, nearly 13 million Africans were kidnapped and imprisoned on European slave ships bound for the Americas. Once landed, the survivors were sold as chattel labor to work colonial mines and plantations. Many had experience growing rice. African rice often accompanied slave voyages. As slave ships plied the West African coast, their captains purchased it in bulk to feed their captives during the weeks-long Middle Passage. Eventually, unmilled seed rice found its way from ships’ larders into the hands of New World Africans, who planted it in their provision gardens or maroon hideaways. By the end of the 17th century, plantation owners in Carolina (and later Brazil) were beginning to cultivate rice in response to rising demand from Europe. They very likely grew glaberrima at first—acquired as leftover slave ship provisions—and were almost certainly tutored by slaves already proficient at growing it. The development of rice as a lucrative export crop, cultivated on a massive scale in the tropical and semi-tropical swamps and tidewater estuaries of the Americas, is also a story of African agency and know-how. Nearly all the technologies employed on New World rice plantations bear African antecedents, from the irrigation systems that made fields productive, to the milling and winnowing of grain by African female labor wielding traditional African tools. The recovery of African rice history dispels long-held beliefs that Africans contributed little to the global table and added nothing more than muscle to the agricultural history of the Americas. It upends the myth that they only provided labor, existing as less-than-human “hands” that uncomprehendingly carried out slaveholder directives. Rice history has directed scholars to new geographical spaces, such as the provision gardens of the enslaved, while integrating contributions from archaeology, botany, geography, linguistics, and genomics. Not least, it gives to slavery’s victims a voice rarely heard in traditional sources.
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.