Reviewed by Pete Sigal (Department of History, California State University, Los Angeles)
Published on H-LatAm (August, 2002)
The ambitious agenda of Lopez Austin and Lopez Lujan is to both write a comprehensive historical review of preconquest Mexico and to present a series of debates about the important topics related to the history, archaeology, and art history of the indigenous peoples. Though they leave some room for improvement, these authors are clearly successful in their endeavor, and I heartily recommend this book, both for those looking for a primer on preconquest Mexico and for those looking for a text to use in the classroom.
This book, a translation of El pasado indigena, provides scholars and students with an important synthesis. The book, in an effort to preserve readability, lacks endnotes (an unfortunate decision in this reviewer's mind). The authors provide the first such overview book which goes beyond the boundaries of Mesoamerica. They argue that the three great culture areas (Aridamerica, Oasisamerica, and Mesoamerica) must be understood in relation to each other. It is a solid argument indeed. Even Mesoamerica cannot be understood without an analysis of shifting boundaries and its relationships with the other cultural areas. Yet, the problem that Lopez Austin and Lopez Lujan face is endemic to all such studies: the information on Aridamerica and Oasisamerica pales in comparison to that of Mesoamerica. Hence the book is primarily about Mesoamerica, as the other two culture-areas really only influence the first chapter.
The first substantive chapter, "The Great Divisions," emphasizes the relationships between these culture areas. The authors argue that we must understand these three areas as zones, which interact with each other, and thus influence each other's histories and traditions. Here the authors distinguish between hunter/gatherer societies (which predominate in Aridamerica) and sedentary societies. They show the difficulties of establishing agricultural techniques in the harsh climate of Aridamerica. They divide Aridamerica into various areas (central and southern California, the Great Basin, Northwestern Arizona, the Apache area, Baja California, the Sonora Coast, Northern Mexico, and Southern Texas), noting that the areas had only sporadic contact with each other. Thus they developed a wide variety of cultures that can be grouped together primarily by their hunting and gathering techniques. Oasisamerica, a more sedentary region, comprised groups attempting agricultural lifestyles within the desert. The groups had greater contact with each other and had some shared technology, history, and culture. Oasisamerica, according to this overview, existed as a cultural area primarily due to the peoples' attempts at farming in an otherwise inhospitable region. The difficulty of farming these regions prevented significant expansion and urban development.
The book frames the preliminary section on Mesoamerica in a series of debates pertaining to peoples, periods, and territories. At this point the authors begin to incorporate an interesting historiographical discussion within their overview. This one aspect makes this book a fascinating text, which will be very useful in the classroom. So, while introducing students to the overall area of Mesoamerica, the authors allow students and specialists alike to delve into arguments about the nature of Mesoamerican society: its boundaries, ethnic groups, cultural traits, periodization, and most importantly, the rationale for it being viewed as a region. So we find that Mesoamerica is defined by sedentary agriculture, shared traditions, and
a common history. The rest of the book fleshes out these initial definitions.
The next chapter analyzes the Preclassic period in Mesoamerica. In the early Preclassic (2500-1200 B.C.), only egalitarian tribal societies (which used subsistence agriculture) existed. In the middle Preclassic (1200-400 B.C.), agriculture became more complex, irrigation techniques developed, greater productive specialization occurred, and social stratification began to take place. The authors work through some of the debates about the development of social stratification, stating that the most convincing argument is that increasing specialization led to the creation of certain kin groups, which had greater access to resources than others. It was during this era that Olmec civilization thrived, but as the authors emphasize, we know little about these people. At this point, we begin to see writing and calendrical notations. The late Preclassic (400 B.C.-200A.D.) witnesses the fall of the Olmecs and the beginning of Teotihuacan. The authors move through developments in each area of Mesoamerica, concentrating on the creation of social hierarchies. They conclude the chapter with an interesting section on Olmec influence, analyzing such questions as why the Olmecs had influence over such a diversity of regions (primarily through trade and intermarriage) and who the Olmecs really were.
The lengthy chapter on the Classic period begins by asking what we mean by a "Classic" period, analyzing particularly the significant urbanization throughout the region. At this point, and with the flowering of Teotihuacan in the early Classic period, greater regional integration takes place. We also see various arguments about periodization and the increasing social stratification of the time. The authors discuss the rationale for the lack of a writing system in Teotihuacan, suggesting that it had to do with the fact that their power was not based not on lineage arrangements, but rather on territory and trade. In central Mexico, Teotihuacan dominated, as the city rose to as many as 200,000 inhabitants. The authors go through arguments about the reasons for Teotihuacan's dominance, and they show the ways that Teotihuacan has been depicted as a peaceful group of priestly rulers. In fact the rulers were well armed, engaged in military conquests, and performed human sacrifice. While they do not appear to have been as militaristic as the Maya states, and even less so compared with the Postclassic societies, the rulers of Teotihuacan were no pacifists. During this period, we also see the flourishing of Monte Albn in Oaxaca. Finally, the book discusses the various Classic Maya sites and the development of iconography. The Maya sites flourished in a state of relatively constant warfare (As the authors note, scholars used to believe that the Maya were the peaceful scientists of the region. Such wishful thinking derived from an attempt to initiate a binary logic in which the peace-loving Maya would be contrasted with the bloodthirsty Aztecs. Of course such logic ignored much historical evidence). By the late Classic, as Teotihuacan's presence in the area faded, a few Maya states became dominant and developed a series of tributaries within their regions. Rulers engaged in constant warfare, blood sacrifice, and significant ritual activities. Maya writing systems flourished as the Maya wrote about the calendar, religion, and history. A final section here discusses debates about the dominance of Teotihuacan, concluding that trade and commerce was key to the expansion of the city.
A brief chapter on the Epiclassic period analyzes the collapse of the Classic and the development of a short period of great flux, ethnic mixture and extraordinary levels of warfare. During this period, Teotihuacan fell at a dramatic rate, and the authors discuss the debates around this collapse. They most extensively discuss the rationales given for the Maya collapse, settling eventually on a multicausal explanation (a variety of internal and external factors led to the collapse). The most intriguing chapter is the one on the Postclassic period, in which the authors ably use a combination of ethnohistorical documents, archaeology, and epigraphy to construct a fascinating picture of the various Postclassic societies. While the authors overemphasize the Mexica (as is necessary in any historical overview, simply because of the available documentation) and underemphasize the various Maya communities, they provide an excellent social, cultural, political, and economic history of the Postclassic period.
The chapter begins with an analysis of the Toltecs, discussing the main historical quandary: while we know a great deal about the Toltecs from ethnohistorical sources, we know little about how or over whom they reigned. The vast array of Toltec influences all over Mesoamerica is left for a final section to the chapter, in which the authors support the hypothesis that the mythohistorical Tollan led to the spread of a particular ideological construct which the Toltecs imitated in such a way that they came to be seen as the originators of the tradition. As such, Toltec influence throughout the region comes more from the mythological tradition and the ideological support for that tradition than from a series of Toltec conquests, intermarriages, or migrations.
The next section of the chapter is a lengthy discussion of Mexica dominance. The authors follow the Mexica from the mythohistorical texts, which describe the trek from Aztlan through their series of intermarriages and alliances in central Mexico, finally, to the establishment, expansion, and fall of the triple alliance. The extensive discussion of Mexica culture and society could, as the authors state, be applied to other Nahua groups, but this reader wondered if the book would not benefit from greater analysis of other well documented Nahua communities, particularly Chalco, Texcoco, and Tlaxcala. The analysis of Mexica social structure and religion particularly stand out. The extensive discussion of the calpultin will be very useful to stimulate classroom debate about the relationship between ethnicity, kinship, and territory.
The following sections on Oaxaca, Western Mesoamerica, and the Gulf, are necessarily more sparse as less documentation exists. Oaxacan society is the best documented of the three, and the authors there analyze the Mixtecs and Zapotecs, particularly focusing on Mixtec influence over the region. The discussion, though, based primarily on preconquest Mixtec writing itself, is more oriented toward political rather than social and cultural history.
The next section, on the Maya region, analyzes the rise and fall of Chichn Itz, discussing the various cultural influences on the great city. The authors show the enormous debate about Toltec influence over the area, and they argue that a more nuanced methodology is needed to discern the reasons for the Toltec presence. They argue that the Zuyua people (an amalgamation of various groups with both central Mexican and Maya cultural influences) affected the developments of Yucatec culture during this period. They also provide some information about the political history of the southern regions. The book briefly discusses cultural and social issues here, but given the extensive number of studies now available, the authors could place greater emphasis on the Maya.
The final section of the chapter, focusing on the movement from Toltec to Mexica dominance, is also the most provocative. The authors argue that Quetzalcoatl became a figure for all of Mesoamerica as a mythological support for hierarchical social structures. The peoples ably and creatively combined Quetzalcoatl with local deities to provide greater ideological support for regional nobles. No group attempted to dominate beyond their own region, settling instead for a series of tributaries. The Mexica in the end were some of the first to seriously challenge Quetzalcoatl's hegemony as they promoted the cult of Huitzilopochtli. They also were the first to begin to move beyond their region, only to be cut off by the Spanish conquest.
This book is well worth reading and provides some fascinating commentary. However, consulting the more recent colonial ethnohistories, which provide some more systematic analysis, could have been useful to the authors' analyses, particularly in considering the late Postclassic societies. Certainly a consultation of recent works could allow the authors to engage in more of a critique of indigenous social structures on the eve of the Spanish conquest. The book also largely ignores gender differentiation (except for a very brief discussion of gender within religion). As recent works have shown, placing gender within historical analysis is always extremely relevant and useful. These considerations aside, the methodology used here, allowing students access to archaeological and historiographical debates while also providing a historical overview, is sound, and the authors present a highly readable and well reasoned account of indigenous Mexico before the Spanish conquest.
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Pete Sigal. Review of Austin, Alfredo Lopez; Lujan, Leonardo Lopez, Mexico's Indigenous Past.
H-LatAm, H-Net Reviews.
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