Indigenous Perspectives on the Natural World: Intersections between Ethnohistory and Environmental History in Early Colonial Mesoamerica

AHA Session 85
Conference on Latin American History 16
Friday, January 4, 2019: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Salon 7 (Palmer House Hilton, Third Floor)
Molly A. Warsh, University of Pittsburgh
Molly A. Warsh, University of Pittsburgh

Session Abstract

Although scholars have largely repudiated previous arguments for environmental determinism, the environment in which communities live has an undeniable impact on how they interact with their world and the human and non-human actors around them. Human dependency on the environment and their familiarity with it for survival make this relationship especially complex. Any transformation in the natural and built surroundings or human engagement with them can impact broader understandings of the world that they inhabit. These phenomena are all the more palpable in contexts of cultural contact and colonialism, where groups with different, if not entirely divergent, environmental notions and experiences interact in a novel constellation of people, places, and things. Such cases are particularly useful for illustrating the extent to which human interactions with the environment and landscape--including definitions of these very entities--are highly contextual. All features of the surroundings, as well as human engagements with them, must be understood within the cultural, social, and historical situation in which they occur.

In Central Mexico and Highland Guatemala, changes initiated by European imperialism from the sixteenth century induced Nahua and Maya communities, as well as Spaniards, to renegotiate their relationship with the environment as they concurrently engaged with each other. This panel explores experiences of and interactions with the environment in Nahua and K’iche’an Maya communities. Situated in the mountainous and lacustrine regions of Mesoamerica, these indigenous groups possessed valuable knowledge about their distinctive natural environment, which was often employed or reshaped under Spanish control. The implications of colonialism for human-environment relations were not unidirectional: colonial encounters spurred the newcomers to acquire indigenous insights on these unknown surroundings in which they were entirely immersed, just as indigenous communities incorporated both European insights on and their own experiences with previously unknown flora and fauna into their existing environmental schema, building on similar, pre-Columbian patterns of engagement with other Mesoamerican groups.

This new-found knowledge could also be exploited at another’s expense, as demonstrated perhaps most dramatically by Spanish use of indigenous labor for prospecting and mining rich Mesoamerican precious metals. Simultaneously, indigenous communities employed their knowledge about the environment to navigate aspects of Spanish colonial processes, as well as to safeguard some of their own traditions. Exchange of knowledge did not necessarily correlate with mutual benefits from it, because negotiating an environment inherently entails navigating relations with other groups occupying it. Addressing how Mesoamerican communities perceived, interacted with, modified, created, or even destroyed their environment can illuminate how they negotiated colonial encounters between indigenous knowledge, European perspectives, and technological innovation. Highlighting the environment’s effects on colonial processes thus shifts the traditional perspective on dynamics between the colonizers and colonized. As this panel’s case studies on disease, livestock, deluge or drought, and volcanic activity collectively suggest, conceptions of the environment were ultimately both a source and a product of cultural encounters in early Mesoamerica, bound up in human-human and human-environment relations of tension and complementarity that remain highly salient into the present.

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