WILDERNESS UNDER FIRE
Although Christopher Columbus has a national holiday to honor his 1492 mission, on the basis of sheer exploratory drama we ought to celebrate something called Clovis Day instead. 1
At least according to a much-honored archeological theory, the Clovis people trekked out of Siberia sometime before 11,000 years ago. Crossing the Bering land bridge (although “bridge” hardly does justice to the plain that purportedly stretched nearly 1,000 miles in width), they forged their way into Alaska, marking the first human settlement of North America. Within less than a millennium, they traveled the length of the continents, venturing to the Great Plains and the American Southwest (where their stone points were first discovered in Clovis, New Mexico), eventually ending up at the tip of South America. Two formerly uninhabited continents were quite suddenly—in geologic time at least—brought into the orbit of Homo sapiens. As discoveries go, this was a monumental journey that marked the greatest expansion across a landmass in the history of humankind. It can never be repeated on this planet.
That is, if it happened at all. In recent years, new evidence suggests the possibility that human beings arrived in North and South America earlier, perhaps as much as thousands to tens of thousands of years before the first Clovis hunters or Paleoindians crossed the Bering bridge. Using the technique of radiocarbon dating, archeologists have uncovered a site in southern Chile that goes back nearly 15,000 years. Even a human footprint exists to confirm the presence of these preClovis people. 2
Did these early settlers, whenever they arrived, walk lightly on the earth, extracting a living ever so gently from nature, leaving behind a pristine wilderness, as some environmentalists like to think? The notion that Indians acted out the ideals of the modern-day conservation movement has a long and enduring history. But such a view, however popular, has little basis in reality. Compared to the excesses of twentieth-century consumer culture, Native American life may well seem ecologically benign. But we must be careful not to romanticize the people and landscape in the period before European contact. Indians were intimately aware of and connected to the environment around them, and the rituals they took part in often emphasized their recognition of that dependence. They farmed the soil, hunted game, set fires, and gathered berries and nuts, engaging in a spiritually rich relationship with the land, while shaping it to meet the needs of everyday survival. Sparsely settled the land may have been, but a total wilderness it was not.