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Tuesday, September 4th, 2012

Time Event
5:44p
Once upon a time ...
This was another of those pleasant dollar store finds … a nice National Geographic book, full of pretty pictures, for a buck. Now, as regular readers know, I'm a sucker for almost anything with an archaeological spin, and there, on the back cover, was a real sweet winter shot of the “Cliff Palace” ruins at Mesa Verde … so there was no way that I wasn't tossing a copy of this into my cart!

I must admit, however, that Robert Fisher's America A.D. 1000: The Land and the Legends would not have been very high on my to-read list if not for that. This is a “story” format anthropological work, with content aimed at (what I would guess to be) a high school interest level, that takes a “day in the life” look at individuals from five Native American cultural groups … arctic, eastern woodlands, great plains, Pacific northwest, and the canyon lands of the southwest … across North America at approximately 1000 AD.

Each section paints a word-picture of one tribal member and uses that to present a wide spectrum of data in a story format, creating a somewhat forced (some of the details are clearly “shoehorned” in to provide “educational” value about specifics of the culture) narrative of that group. Of course, there are pages and pages of photography, but not many “archaeological artifacts” (maybe a half a dozen), most of the focus being on “nature” shots, landscapes, animals, etc. There are several very interesting “historical” photos here as well, but I think they went sparingly with those in order to not suggest that the early photographic images were realistically representative of the tribes' appearances 8-9 centuries before photography. In addition, there are quite a number of illustrations of various activities, from a market day in Chaco Canyon, to an aerial depiction of the Etowa site in its prime, and to a 3/4th submerged image of a whale being brought back from the hunt.

In “People of the Aurora” we are presented with the story of an Inuit seal hunter. At first this covers the hunt for a seal, but then spins out to describe other hunts, from whales, to bears, to caribou, and even birds. In each case the technology (as far as we know it) is described, the sorts of tools and weapons used, etc. This then switches to the culture itself, with “daily activities”, how the community is laid out and what sort of houses there are, etc., and eventually to the religious beliefs of the people.

In “People of the Fire” we are presented with a little girl from the Mississippian culture at Cahokia. The story presents cultural elements from her perspective, and things here, because of this, sort of “spill out” of the narrative into details that she would have been unlikely to have either known or been particularly interested in … resulting in this being a bit more “cinematographic”, making her surroundings more the feature than the girl herself. The author manages to get in politics, commerce, agriculture, religion, science, etc. in the telling of the little girl's meanderings around the city.

In “People of the Bufflao” we are presented with a Hidatsa grandmother. Here the main character is generally reminiscing about various elements of her life, which allows Fisher to insert the same broad swath of info about the culture. An interesting, but odd, addition here are paintings by George Caitlin, who visited with the Hidatsa in the 1830's … which at least implies that what he painted then was representative of how the characters lived nearly a millennium before.

In “People of the Rugged Coast” we are presented with a Makah shaman. Now, one would hope that this would be focused on the spiritual/religious aspects of the culture, but it really (again) just provides a pair of eyes of somebody who would be “out and about” through the village. There are perhaps a bit more elements here of magic (like how a whaler's wife is doing sympathetic magic emulating the whale at home while her husband is off on the hunt), but these also fall into the “how do we know that?” realm, as cultural details like that are hard to extrapolate from data so far removed in time.

Finally, in “People of the Canyon” we are presented with an Anasazi astronomer. This attracted my attention both for being about sites that I've visited, and “technologies” that I've read about. The character here is an astronomer responsible for monitoring the movements of light “daggers” across carved glyphs, but his main function seems to be a discussion of how the culture expresses itself across the calendar.

Again, America A.D. 1000 is very much a “picture book”, full of great photography, that, generally speaking, only has a peripheral connection with the text. While quite a lot of cultural detail is presented, it comes through as a narrative, so is not very specific, although I suppose (in cases like how a doll is made, or a harpoon barbed) the details are drawn from artifacts from these cultures. Of course, this isn't about in-depth analysis of artifacts, but (having read quite a lot of material that is), I found the “story” format a bit less than engaging … however, I figure that my 14-year-old self would have liked this quite a lot.

I'm not sure if this is out of print or not … Amazon doesn't have it, except via the new/used guys, but B&N does have it “at retail” … yet I wasn't able to dig it up over on the National Geographic site. In any case, the new/used guys have “good” copies (and I wonder how beat up a heavy-photo-paper hardcover gets – my copy from the dollar store would have rated “like new”) for as little as a penny, plus shipping, which is probably your best deal unless you stumble over it like I did. Again, I'd say this would be great for a middle-school kid, less so for folks who've read a lot on the topic.


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