Latin American Research Review 39.1 (2004) 302-313
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Ancient American Histories
History has taken front and center stage in recent studies of Ancient America. This is especially true of research centered on the two areas of the most complex civilizations: Mesoamerica and the Andean region. The reasons for this historical turn are many: the decipherment of Maya hieroglyphic writing, advances in the reading of Mixtec codices, and the considerable theoretical debates in ethnohistory have been crucial [End Page 302] to the development and analysis of the textual material on which history thrives. Material culture has also contributed much to the emerging histories through archaeological techniques such as strontium analysis and neutron activation that allow for fine-grained identifications of provenience. In addition, several large-scale archaeological projects designed specifically to construct long-term histories have recently come to fruition. Finally, the long crisis of static or unitary "culture" has encouraged historical studies. 1
Much of the scholarly story here revolves around history's interaction with the disciplinary regimes (especially anthropology, archaeology, ethnohistory, and art history) already in place. Many of the works below examine classic anthropological questions such as the rise of complex culture and urbanism and the hegemony of the elite. These questions are posed, however, with a great respect for their historicity. That said, this interest in history does not mean that there is an emergent unified field of Ancient American inquiry. As in any present historical endeavor, there is not always consensus around what sort of history should be written.
Mexico's Indigenous Past by Alfredo López Austin and Leonardo López Luján is the pre-Columbian volume in a series on Mexican history commissioned by the Colegio de México. The authors rightly ignore meaningless national boundaries and create a coherent set of culture regions out of the area running from the Southwestern United States to parts of Honduras and El Salvador. This super-region is then divided into three areas: Aridamerica, Oasisamerica, and Mesoamerica. The former two areas include great parts of the Southwest United States, following definitions based on the work of the great Mesoamericanist Paul Kirchoff in the 1950s.
The volume begins with a sketch history of the entire super-region. Crucial to the basic thesis of the book is the nature of the relationship among the three areas. The authors argue for real and extended contact between the two regions of more complex, sedentary culture—Oasisamerica and Mesoamerica—while noting how both regions were impacted by the movements and mores of the largely hunter-gatherer population that lived in between, called here Aridamerica. While this history on a grand scale...