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Sunday, March 26th, 2006

Time Event
11:13p
Another book ...
This was an odd one ... I still am not sure why the book was set up the way it was. Brian M. Fagan's Kingdoms of Gold, Kingdoms of Jade: The Americas Before Columbus starts with the contact-era cultures of the Aztecs and the Incas, but then jumps back to theories of initial native settlement in North America, discussing Hunting societies, Fishing societies, and Farming societies, their development, etc. (and geographically ranging all over the place in the process). The book then goes into an Olmec - Mayan - Mayan/Toltec section, and then sort of back-tracking to "pre-Aztec" cultures (Teotihuacan/Toltec), jumping back down to South America to deal with the pre-Incan cultures of the Chavin, Moche, and various other regional groups, and then moving north again to look at North America in only the context of the Pueblo cultures and the Mississippian/Moundbuilders. Obviously, the author wanted to "anchor" the book on the period of European contact, and then explore what came before ... but it really did seem to lack a certain sense of "structure".

This is not to say that any of the individual bits of Kingdoms of Gold, Kingdoms of Jade are badly done. Section-by-section the book is quite interesting, and lavishly illustrated with plates ranging from Catherwood lithos to museum items, to aerial shots of ruin sites, to "anthropological" portraits, to reproductions from assorted codexes and pottery, to plan diagrams of sites (some, like Chavin de Huantar, I'd not seen in that detail previously) done specifically for this volume, etc., etc., etc.

Interestingly (to me, at least), I can't find anything on-line about this paperback edition ... everything seems to point to the hardcover version (and this, being from 1991, just on the edge of universal ISBN use, managed to get into print without one in or on the book, so there might be a different record out there for the paperback, I just can't find it!). Why should you care? Well, if you're interested in picking up a copy, all the links I have go to the hardcover ... now, admittedly, this seems to be out of print at this point, and you can get a used copy via Amazon's new/used vendor service for as little as 86¢ ... but it bugs me to not be able to refer to this edition!

Any caveats? Well ... aside from the strange (and/or lack of) structure ... the author takes a couple (and just 2 or 3, this isn't like that Dreamtime book with Luddite rants) shots at "modern western culture" of the environmental Chicken Little variety, which should have been bitch-slapped out of the book by his editors. That sort of stuff always seems like the writer is trying to prove how progressive or aware or hip he/she is when it's gratuitously dropped into a book like this! I also have some questions about some of the figures he uses in here about disease patterns in North America, especially in light of the other book I'm currently reading, Native American History which paints the Native depopulation (especially in the Eastern states) as more a matter of "ethnic cleansing" than frontiersmen finding "empty villages" on their way west.

Having read a great deal in this particular area, I have some pretty solid opinions on the topic, and while I don't much care for how Fagan tries to "weave together" all these cultures (he sort of tries to suggest a common "jaguar" motif, which while obvious in several cultures, is something of a "reach" in others) he presents a decent picture of each on its own, and adds in interesting details that I hadn't previously encountered. Since you can get a copy for cheap, you might consider picking this up (if for just the pictures).


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