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A Plague of Sheep: Environmental Consequences of the Conquest of Mexico (Studies in Environment and History)

4.0 out of 5 stars 2 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0521420617
ISBN-10: 052142061X
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Editorial Reviews

Review

"...a very important book for all those interested in Latin American history....a very important work because it opens up a debate that should help us better understand the processes of European conquest throughout Latin America." Erick D. Langer, The Americas

"Melville's book does a great service....All in all, the book truly contributes to an historical profession that too often sees nature in terms of the longue dureé of Braudel. Melville provides a balance." Abel A. Alves, H-Net Book Review

"This is a fascinating study of the effects of policy and ecology on a small region in Mexico....All who are interested in historical environmental studies should read this book. Its implications are not limited to Mexico, nor to the early modern period." John F. Schwaller, Sixteenth Century Journal

Book Description

Taking as a case study the sixteenth century history of a region of highland central Mexico, this text reveals how the environmental and social changes brought about by the introduction of Old World grazing species aided European expansion by enabling the Spanish takeover of land.
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Product Details

  • Series: Studies in Environment and History
  • Hardcover: 220 pages
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press (March 24, 1994)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 052142061X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0521420617
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.6 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #6,166,814 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Paperback
This too-short book ably expands on the achievements of the Berkeley School of historical demography, while integrating Mexico with the concerns of global environmental history. The (UCal) Berkeley School---Woodrow Borah, Sherburne Cook, Lesley Simpson, and Carl Sauer---pioneered the systematic study of Indian population decline, and also explored patterns of land exploitation in New Spain. Melville extends this work with in-depth use of Mexican and Spanish archives, focusing on the Valle del Mezquital north of Mexico City. She shows how Spaniards used depopulated Indian lands for sheep raising, leading to overgrazing, degradation and vegetation change. Formerly fertile lands were colonized by invasive mesquite scrub (thus Valle del Mezquital), making the region largely unproductive until irrigation in the 20th century. Thorough documentation makes this a most concrete study of Mexican land use history, and while the writing is not exciting, it is quite readable. An interesting chapter compares Australia's experience with sheep to the Valle, but it distracts readers from the too-brief core of the book and ultimately seems misplaced. Since this book appeared, Melville has taken up the larger issue of capitalism's impact on Latin American environments with a chapter in T. Griffith & L. Robin eds, "Ecology and Empire." There is now a very solid study of struggles over water use in colonial Puebla, S. Lipsett-Rivera, "To Defend Our Water With the Blood of Our Veins."
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Format: Paperback
Elinor Melville’s book, A Plague of Sheep, is a scary story about the Valle del Mezquital, a valley north of Mexico City. Spanish colonists arrived there in 1521. Melville describes the tragedy that occurred between then and 1600. The valley is located at high elevation in a tropical region. It has a cool and arid climate. Valle del Mezquital means “a valley where mesquite grows.” It got this name late in the seventeenth century, after it had been transformed into a barren land by an ecological revolution — a plague of sheep.

For the first hundred years of Spanish occupation, epidemics repeatedly blasted the natives, who had no immunity. Between 1519 and 1620, the population of Mexico fell by 90 to 95 percent. The Aztec and Inca civilizations were overwhelmed. When the Spanish arrived, the densely populated Valle del Mezquital was home to the Otomi people, descendants of the once mighty Toltecs. They were farmers who grew maize, beans, squash, chilies, tomatoes, amaranth, sage, and other crops. The surrounding slopes were a mix of grass and forest. Vegetation cover kept the soil moist, and there were a number of flowing springs. This water was used to irrigate the fields.

As the native population was reduced by disease, cropland was abandoned, and became available for grazing. The Spanish brought livestock which exploded in number because there was abundant vegetation and they had no competition from indigenous grazing animals. Overgrazing radically altered the existing plant community, leading to irreversible changes.

The valley experienced an ungulate irruption, in which abundant vegetation is converted into abundant livestock that zoom past carrying capacity and then crash. Eventually, some form of equilibrium is reached.
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