William Denevan

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William Maxfield Denevan (16 October 1931, San Diego) is professor emeritus of Geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a prominent member of the Berkeley School of Latin Americanist Geography.[1] He also worked in the Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the same university. His interests are in historical ecology and indigenous demography of the Western Hemisphere.

He earned his B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. in Geography at the University of California at Berkeley. Motivated by the German guest professor Herbert Wilhelmy, his dissertation (1963) was on "The Aboriginal Settlement of the Llanos de Mojos: A Seasonally Inundated Savanna in Northeastern Bolivia," which he edited into a book in 1966. In 1963 he became Assistant Professor at Wisconsin, where he remained throughout his career, serving as chair of the department from 1980–1983, and becoming the Carl O. Sauer Professor of Geography in 1987.[2] In 1977, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship.[3] In 2001, he became a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

In his book The Native Population of the Americas in 1492 (1976), he provided an influential estimate of the Pre-Columbian population of the Americas, which he placed at 57.3 million, plus or minus 25 percent.[4] The second edition (1992), after reviewing more recent literature, he revised his estimate to 54 million.[5]

His research often deals with how native peoples of the Americas changed their landscape. This is in contrast to what he calls "the pristine myth," the idea that these people had minimal impact on the environment.[6]


  • The Upland Pine Forests of Nicaragua: A Study in Cultural Plant Geography (1961)
  • The Aboriginal Cultural Geography of the Llanos de Mojos of Bolivia (1966)
  • The Native Population of the Americas in 1492 (1976, 2nd ed. 1992)
  • Hispanic Lands and Peoples: Selected Writings of James J. Parsons (ed., 1989)
  • Cultivated Landscapes of Native Amazonia and the Andes (2001)
  • Carl Sauer on Culture and Landscape: Readings and Commentaries (2009, with Kent Mathewson)
Notable articles
  • "The Pristine Myth: The Landscape of the Americas in 1492". Annals of the Association of American Geographers (Washington, D.C.: Association of American Geographers) 82/3 (1992): 369–385.

External links[edit]


  1. ^ UWM Department of Geography Emeritus Faculty Listing
  2. ^ Penn State Department of Geography. "William Denevan to Present Brown Bag Talk." September 19, 2007.
  3. ^ Guggenheim Fellows
  4. ^ Russell Thornton, American Indian Holocaust and Survival, p. 24-25.
  5. ^ UW Press page
  6. ^ Charles C. Mann. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus (excerpt published in The Atlantic Monthly, March 2002).