The Ecological Origins and Consequences of Cattle Ranching in Sixteenth-Century New Spain

Andrew Sluyter
1996 Geographical Review  
Despite the dramatic landscape changes Mexico has undergone due to the introduction of cattle ranching by the Spaniards in the early sixteenth century, the ecological origins of that pastroecosystem have remained obscure. About 1521, Gregorio de Villalobos implanted an Andalusian-derived herding ecology in the Gulf Coast lowlands that involved seasonal movement of cattle between wetlands and hill lands. Land-grant records demonstrate that as the colonial economy expanded, the transhumant model
more » ... roliferated and came into conflict with those native settlements that had survived the pandemics of the early sixteenth century. In circumventing viceregal laws meant to protect native cultures and ecologies, ranchers prevented their recovery; the consequences persist to the present. Keywords: cattle, landscape ecology, native depopulation, New Spain, Veracruz. The two most important things to know about Mexico still are the patterns of life that existed before the coming of the white men and the changes that were introduced during thefirstgeneration or two of the Spanish period. -Carl 0. Sauer, "The Personality of Mexico," 1941 Livestock have occupied the Mexican scene since the sixteenth-century birth of New Spain, early and pervasively contributing to the ecological upheaval of "the Columbian exchange" (Crosby 1972; Butzer 1992; Turner and others 1995). The Spaniards brought livestock both large and small. Along with those cattle, horses, mules, donkeys, sheep, goats, and pigs arrived a suite of ecological institutions that have left decisive imprints on the landscape. The landscape, reciprocally, has left its imprint on institutions. An association of herders organized the transhumant routes bywhich * William E. Doolittle and Alfred H. Siemens have long and generously shared their enthusiasm for the Mexican landscape and given freely of their knowledge and interpretive skills. This content downloaded from on Sat, 6 Sep 2014 20:42:05 PM All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions 162 THE GEOGRAPHICAL REVIEW sheep moved between seasonal pastures along hundreds of kilometers of stonewalled trails, or caniadas. The estancias, or land grants, gridded the landscape league by league, accumulating space for Spaniards and marginalizing natives. The pastures burned each long, dry winter, incrementally altering the vegetation. Yet despite a deep and broad imprint on the Mexican landscape, cattle ranching's sixteenth-century ecological origins have remained obscure. An orthodox literature long emphasized Spain's semiarid plateau-often, specifically, Estremadura-as the Old World hearth of New Spain's ranching ecology (Bishko 1952; Brand 1961; Rouse 1977). Supposedly,a fullydeveloped ecologyand economy involvingmounted herders and transhumance diffused southward with the Reconquista into Andalusia and, ultimately,through Seville and across the Atlanticto New Spain. More recently, revisionists have combined archival and field research to hypothesize that cattle ranching involving mounted herders reached its Old World apogee along the lower Rio Guadalquivir of Andalusia, in the seasonally inundated marshes known as Las Marismas, and from there diffused to New Spain (Doolittle 1987; Butzer 1988; Jordan 1993). To date, contrasts between the sixteenth-century livestock ecologies of Estremadura and Andalusia provide the main support for the revisionist hypothesis. Sheep predominated on the semiarid plateau, and the image of mounted Estremadurans herding cattle across sparse, semiarid grasslands is as much myth as icon. In contrast, cattle predominated in Andalusia, and as the floodwaters of the Rio Guadalquivir receded each spring, herders drove their stock into Las Marismas (Figure 1) . Largely untended during the long dry season, isolated among a labyrinth of sloughs, the animals became semiferal. Solanos blowing out of Africa parched the oak-pine savannas of the surrounding hills, which the ranchers set ablaze in late summer (Fernandez Als, Martin, and Merino 1995,366). As the rains returned each October, herders required horses to round up the semiferal stock before the Guadalquivir flooded and drive them up to the fresh regrowth of the hill pastures. The Andalusian provenance of the original conquistadores, the four hundred or so who sailed with Cortes, further supports the revisionist hypothesis. Nearly a third of the conquistadores hailed from the provinces bordering Las Marismas-Seville,
doi:10.2307/215954 fatcat:m5n4rdkv75g7thgrcpgebfqgvu