A Plague of Sheep: Elinor Melville

Elinor Melville’s A Plague of Sheep (1994) examines the effects of sheep ranching on the environment in the Valle de Mezquital in colonial Mexico. Melville traces the processes that turned a wooded, well-irrigated landscape into desolate pasture lands. She weaves disease, territorial control, ungulate irruptions, and the collapse and consolidation of regional land tenancy into a coherent and rich description that sheds light on colonial Mexico as well as areas in the Andes and Oceania. 

Melville emphasizes the importance of understanding what the environment looked like before conquest to understand the impact of social, economic, and political institutions during the colonial period. Intriguingly, she concludes that while Spanish colonial forces were a constant external force of change, after the introduction of the sheep, the “train of events” continued without much sensitivity to outside forces.

Melville, Elinor G. K. A Plague of Sheep: Environmental Consequences of the Conquest of Mexico. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

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