Journal of World History 14.4 (2003) 559-561
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La Indianidad: The Indigenous World before Latin Americans. By Hernán Horna. Princeton, N.J.: Markus Wiener Publishers,2001. xi + 179 pp. $38.95 (cloth); $18.95 (paper).
Historians face a daunting task when they attempt to write synthetic analyses of the indigenous peoples of Latin America. Even in this age of global narratives, the histories of the civilizations that inhabited the Americas before the European conquest resist broad categorizations, in part because of the incredible diversity of the region in the pre-Columbian period, and in part because of the proclivities of Latin American academics, who typically eschew broad generalizations in favor of the particular. This is the challenge that Hernán Horna faces in his effort to produce a text that explores the story of indigenous Latin Americans from the time of the first human settlement through to the end of the colonial period.
Horna's clearest purpose in the text is to provide a counternarrative to a tradition within Western scholarship that denigrated indigenous [End Page 559] peoples as culturally and racially inferior, ignored the accomplishment of pre-Columbian civilizations, and, even worse, suggested that the European conquest rescued indigenous cultures from their own savagery. In this endeavor he provides a catalog of the accomplishments of the Mayan, Mexican, and Incan civilizations, and argues that it was a unique constellation of pathogenic, technological, and strategic factors that allowed for the conquest. He further laments the loss of cultures and practices that dominated the region prior to the sixteenth century. Bringing up the oft-cited argument that in Incan times there was neither poverty nor hunger in the Andes, he decries the fact that "modern" agriculture and economies have failed to feed Andean peoples for several centuries.
Along with this, Horna devotes a great deal of attention to exploring the connections between Asia and precolombian Latin America. Rejecting the prominent view that all pre-Columbian peoples came across the Bering land bridge, Horna argues that several different major migrations peopled the Americas, and also suggests that contacts between Asia and the Americas continued right up until the conquest. While not arguing that Latin American cultures derived their practices from Asia, Horna is convinced that similarities in art forms between both regions suggest that important influences existed.
His efforts to draw these connections reveal some of the problems faced by a text like this. Horna is committed to showing that Latin Americans were not simply influenced by European civilizations (he avoids any suggestion of the theory, popular among some, of contact between Europeans and Olmecs).Yet in his efforts to show the connections to Asia, he risks supplanting one form of diffusionism with another. Scholars in this field must continually confront those who cannot imagine that indigenous American cultures developed autonomously, and while few today would deny the periodic presence of foreign traders, shipwrecked fishermen, and other voyagers, it takes a large leap to go from a few traders to a significant influence. Horna infers that there were important linkages based on perceived similarities between Asia and Latin America, but in so doing he draws conclusions that once again suggest that indigenous cultures could not have developed without outside influence. And as with others, his argument is based on scant evidence.
More seriously, Horna's larger efforts to deny European superiority over indigenous cultures falls into many of the traps that have traditionally plagued cross-cultural comparisons. By suggesting, for example, that the Mexicans were technologically inferior but culturally superior to the Spanish conquistadores, Horna relies on the same types of primitive-modem dichotomies and notions of cultural evolution that [End Page 560] recent generations of scholars have argued lie at the center of imperialism. Other problems with the text include his tendency to romanticize indigenous cultures, along with a propensity to render these cultures as static, both of which reinscribe the very primitiveness he hopes to challenge. References to the Indian "stock" have the same effect, reinscribing race even as Horna denies the legitimacy of...