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Thursday, December 18, 2014

Before the Revolution: America's Ancient Past by Daniel Richter

The site in present day Missouri called "Cahokia" is the largest pre-European settlement in North America.  The above illustration is based on a century plus of excavation.

Book Review
Before the Revolution: America's Ancient Past
by Daniel Richter
p. 2011
The Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press

  Any attempt to write the pre-European history is faced with three major problems:

1.  Historical anti-Native bias by European scholars
2.  Lack of written records by pre-European North American civilizations.
3.  Decline of the major civilization centers prior to European "discovery" and the European induced epidemics that wiped out 9/10ths of Native populations prior to extensive contact.

   Which is different than saying that there were no pre-European major North American civilizations.  In Before the Revolution: America's Ancient Past, Daniel Richter draws together archaeological records, mythology and advances in understanding of non-European native culture to make a compelling case that there was really not much separating the Native power centers of Pueblo Bonito(four corners region) or Cahokia(Missouri) from their contemporary European counterparts of the late Middle Ages.

  He does this largely to make the case that there was not as much difference between Europeans and Native Americans in the period prior to contact as is typically supposed.  This is a thesis which flies in the face of popular "historians" like Jared Diamond, whose "Guns, Germs and Steel" does much to advance the opposite interpretation: That European civilizations were "destined to win."  Instead Richter advances a much more nuances thesis that relies heavy on the Early centuries of contact (1500-1700) and the numerous failure by Europeans to secure a place in North America.

  This is a major difference between the history of Central and South America, which it's central theme of European conquest of existing Native American civilizations like the Aztecs and Incans.  The Aztecs and Inca's may have "lost;" but we sure do know a lot about both of them. I think it's commensical to presume that there were North American analogue civilizations, especially since the history of both Aztecs AND Inca's conclusively links to prior civilizations who were extinguished prior to contact.   A common theme of "New World" history is the fragility of complex culture in the face of environmental factors, and in that way the more unknown sites of North America may have MORE to teach us about current events.

   Richter describes a Native North America that was familiar with the concepts of agricultural, government and trade, but also familiar with the "European" ideas of slavery and genocide.  The picture that Richter paints of the less known North American civilization centers that died out prior to European contact is not a hippy-peace lovefest.  The Chaco Canyon site  in the four corners area of the Western United States of America sounds very much like a place that had much in common with the Aztecs and their predecessors in Tenochtitlan.  Additionally the myths of North and South "match" in that the Aztecs speak of coming from the North and the present day Natives of the four corners region speak of post-dissolution groups heading to the south to "forget" the presumably hard times at the end of Chaco Canyon.

Richter makes the case that Chaco Canyon was a multi-ethnic accumulation with a distinct elite who managed to subjugate surrounding tribes and bring them into the geographic orbit of Chaco Canyon, while the center accumulated tribute.   It resembles the scenario in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament/Ancient Near Eastern history with "subject peoples" being enslaved by military conqueror civilizations.

  Similarly, Richter described a well settled Mississippi river valley with it's own power centers and subject peoples.  With both civilizations it seems like the "subject peoples" were just as happy to go out on their own, and winners and losers dispersed over the continent.  You can really see it if you look at the distribution of languages across North America PRIOR to European contact:
map of Pre-Contact North American language distribution
     This map shows the clear remnants of both western and eastern centers, with the Uto Aztecan language group dominating the West.  The Mid-West is dominated by the Siouan-Catawaban, with important areas located as far East as the Atlantic ocean. Caddoan and Muskogean appear to be intertwined with Siouan-Catawaban and the North East has a strong Iroquoian presence.  This all goes into the category of arguing that pre-Contact Native American history is "knowable" in a narrative sense, even if we don't have written records.  Looking at other better known civilizations in the immediate neighborhood and from "our" own European and Near Eastern experiences allows inferences to be made in the absence of direct evidence.

   Before the Revolution contines forward into the European contact period, but I found those portions less valuable since there have been many authors re-visiting the Colonial American period in recent decade.  Whereas his treatment of pre-Contact North American civilizations is an able synthesis of the available scholarly material.


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