Here is a very interesting article from Science Mag about a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that shows how the Spanish conquest of the Inca in 1532 impacted human interactions with the environment to the extent that the environment itself changed. In short, prior to the Spanish arrival, Inca fisherman along the coast deposited so many mollusk shells that a kind of armor formed that protected sand-dunes from erosion. When European war and disease caused the deaths of thousands and the dispersal and resettlement of the remaining Indigenous population the shoreline was left uninhabited, the protective ridges disappeared, and much of the dune-like shoreline eroded away. As in my previous post on the decolonization diet, here is further evidence of the impact that colonization had not just on people in the Americas, but also on the environment.
I am further reminded of a new theory about the causes of the so-called little ice age, a period of general climatic cooling in the northern hemisphere that stretched from the late middle ages into the nineteenth century. Conventional wisdom has tended to blame an increase in volcanic and El Nino activity for the end of the Medieval warm period, but a contributing factor of the worst years of the LIA in the sixteenth and seventeenth century may have again been Spanish imperialism. A Stanford geochemist, Richard Nelve suggests that the deaths of so many Indigenous peoples in the south and central Americas as a result of war, disease, and conquest resulted in empty fields, reforestation, and increased carbon sequestration that made an already cool climate colder until the onset of the Industrial Revolution began to inject new sources of carbon into the atmosphere.
At its height, the impact of the LIA was extensive and in many cases catastrophic. Scott A. Mandia, a physics professor at SUNY Suffolk, documents some of these changes here. For example, England’s growing season shortened by one to two months, and food shortages and rising prices throughout Europe resulted in political and social upheavals. The cod fishery all but disappeared in Scotland, only to reappear in the warmer waters of the grand banks off the coast of Newfoundland – another example of environmental connections to colonization as Europeans, this time French and British, began to war with themselves and indigenous peoples for control of this important resource. French settlers in Quebec wrote of the mountains of snow that piled up in the streets. Winter began at the beginning of October and did not let go until late in May. And poor growing seasons exacerbated by disease resulted in food shortages that severally impacted Indigenous peoples.
Human history is full of examples of just how much our activity impacts the environment and conversely just how much the environment impacts us.
Engraving showing the frozen Montmorency Falls on the Rivière St-Charles, near Quebec City, 1781. James Peachey