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Wednesday, August 9th, 2006

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9:57a
A bit of a longer read ...
While not being an uninteresting read, I really don't have that much to say about Richard E.W. Adams' Prehistoric Mesoamerica, which probably has more to do with it being intended as a college textbook than anything else. This "revised edition" puts the chapters in a chronological order (where the original version started with the Aztecs, which was how the author preferred to teach the subject to his students), going from what pre-cultural archaeological traces there are in the region, into the Olmec, Mayan, etc., and up to the Spanish conquest.

As I've noted in a couple of reviews of late (on books on this subject), I somehow had mentally mis-placed Teotihuacan in time ... despite having spent quite a while there over several visits ... I had managed to peg it as far older than its 200-800 C.E. age, which has caused me to have to do some mental gymnastics to "deal with" the concept of it having had active inter-relations with various other mesoamerican cultures. Perhaps this is from my "buying into" the Aztec view that Teotihuacan was built by the Gods in some earlier epoch, rather than paying attention to dating information in the books and museums!

This comes up in relation to how Adams presents the cultures of the area as being much more interwoven (at least by trade) than is often pictured, with a lot more "fluidity" of ideas and alliances. In fact, for some regions, he argues that the "cultural definitions" of many groups are essentially arbitrary, being the result of anthropologists or archaeologists wanting to put a label on the "stuff in this valley" versus the "stuff in that valley".

The book is full of all sorts of interesting tidbits, such as the Tarascan culture having a language (and some architectural traits) that is related to the Quechua of the Incas in Peru and the language of the Zuni in the American southwest. However, this was hardly an "easy read", with way too many parts that read like this:
Internal motivations to cultural complexity may have been largely based on population growth. All indications are that during the Classic and Postclassic periods population increased and that elaborations of sociopolitical arrangements was one sign of increasing complexity.
Although, to be fair, Adams does inject a wry humor to many observations, with comments like: "the Tarascans themselves are still around to be consulted, at least on their language and other surviving matters of interest".

Would I recommend Prehistoric Mesoamerica? Sure, if you're interested in the subject to the extent that an in-depth analysis of it from a rather academic stance will hold your attention. There are a lot of maps, drawings and photos, but not so much that this would draw in the casual reader. The book does appear to be currently out of print, but can be had for under five bucks in "like new" condition from the Amazon used/new vendors (not bad, given its original $36.95 cover price).


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