Native Americans Harvesting Timber

Date: 1532
Owner: New York Public Library
Source Type: Images


This 1638 engraving shows the method by which Peruvian Indians harvested wood and split timbers. Throughout the New World, lumber was an incredibly important resource because, as Europe's forests were diminishing, American wood could be used to build the ships necessary for oceanic commerce and for maintaining the colonial economic system of international trade.

Even more so than today, deforestation had immense ecological consequences because the recently cleared land became overrun by European and African plants. Some of these were intentionally cultivated, especially wheat, rice, olives, and American cash crops like tobacco, but much of the cleared land was filled by European grasses and weeds seeking to exploit new ecologial niches. This created pasture for livestock which brought further change to the ecosystem as well as a variety of new animal-born diseases.

This image is interesting because it shows the changes European conquest wrought on both natural and urban landscapes. The city in the background of this picture (Cuzco, Peru) is arranged on a rectangular grid, a pattern common throughout post- Columbian Latin America, and it is dominated by a Catholic church, itself the source of enormous cultural and political influence over Indian populations. This entire scene would have been alien to pre-1492 Americans. .Although trees were harvested prior to the conquest in much the same manner, the demand (and consequent labor coercion) intensified under Spanish rule, when lumberjacking became both more common and, probably, less pleasant.

CITATION: [Cusco, Peru]. 1638. In Phelps Stokes Collection of American Historical Prints. Digital ID: 54647. Courtesy of the New York Public Library, Humanities and Social Sciences Library/ Print Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs.