The Making of the Myth in Postcolonial Development: Material-Conceptual Landscape Transformation in Sixteenth-Century Veracruz



European colonialism entailed material and conceptual landscape transformations that continue to define the parameters for postcolonial development. The major conceptual landscape transformation, termed the “pristine myth” for the Americas, remains a cultural foundation for the binary categorization of the world into a rationally progressive West versus an irrationally traditional non-West, thus driving the social and environmental contradictions of postcolonial development efforts. Despite much evidence that contradicts the pristine myth—the myth in postcolonial development—it retains a pernicious grip on the Western popular imagination because attempts to falsify it have not demonstrated its emergence through a colonial process that materially and conceptually transformed landscapes while simultaneously obscuring such transformation. Study of sixteenth-century landscape transformation in the environs of the port of Veracruz demonstrates the significance of a material-conceptual, positive-feedback process in the emergence of a myth of increasingly rational land-use over the course of the colonial and postcolonial periods, when, in fact, the opposite transformation has occurred. That landscape served as the beachhead for the Spanish colonization of North America and thus influenced the initial conceptualization of New Spain, as well as undergoing some of the earliest material transformations due to disease and livestock introductions. Although this occurred early in the process of global colonization, a detailed database of land-grant documents enables reconstruction of interactions among population, vegetation, livestock, and categories of land use, cover, and tenure. Identification of such key variables in a positive-feedback process that simultaneously transformed landscape and obscured that transformation tentatively provides the basis for a more general falsification of the myth in postcolonial development.