Landscapes of cultivation in Mesoamerica on the eve of the conquest

Thomas M. Whitmore, B. L. Turner

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


Pre-Columbian Amerindian agriculturalists developed technologies and management practices with which to crop a wide range of ecological conditions, giving rise to a multiplicity of cultivated landscapes. This variety was particularly evident in Mesoamerica, where agricultural practices ranged from swiddening to multicropped, hydraulically transformed wetlands. Here we explore these indigenous cultivated landscapes as they existed about the time of the Columbian Encounter. We illustrate them through the examination of three transects approximating the courses of the initial Spanish entradas through this diverse region: the first extends from the Gulf coast to central Mexico; the second traverses the Yucatan peninsula from north to south; and the third climbs into highland Guatemala from the Pacific coastal plain. Second, we broadly sketch the major changes that took place in these landscapes during the first phase of Spanish domination and some of the forces that shaped these changes. Three processes were especially significant: the Amerindian depopulation, the introduction of exotic biota and technologies, and the reordering of land and the rural economy. Ultimately, however, reconfigured "hybrid" landscapes resulted that reflected the union of cultures. Last, we argue that the scale of environmental transformation of Amerindian agriculture has not always been fully appreciated, the scale of environmental degradation associated with Spanish introductions has been overstated at times, and the contrasting ideologies of nature between the two cultures has been oversimplified.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Pacific World Lands, Peoples and History of the Pacific, 1500-1900
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages24
ISBN (Electronic)9781315263137
ISBN (Print)9780754639787
StatePublished - May 15 2017


  • Amerindian agriculture
  • Columbian encounter
  • Mesoamerica
  • Sixteenth century

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities


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