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Atlas of Ancient America by Michael Coe, Dean Snow and Elizabeth Benson (Facts On File: $35; 240 pp., illustrated)

January 04, 1987| William Bright | Bright, who teaches at UCLA, specializes in the American Indians of California and Mexico. and

It is hard to imagine Italian cooking without tomatoes, or Switzerland without chocolate, or Ireland without potatoes; yet these foods were first domesticated by the Indians of the Ancient America celebrated in this book. The list of plants which the conquistadores brought back can of course be extended: corn, chilis, avocados, peanuts, tapioca, and cotton--as well as two leafy plants of more ambiguous value, tobacco and coca. The artifacts and the mythologies of Native America have also made their contributions to the visual arts and literatures of the modern world. In exchange, Europeans have presented the American Indian with iron tools, horses, Christianity, infectious diseases, enslavement, alienation, cultural dissolution, and continuing genocide. But the glories of pre-Columbian America, as recovered by eminent archeologists and ethnohistorians like the authors of this book, are here presented with a clarity and visual beauty which seems to bring them back to life.

The term "Atlas" suggests maps. This volume indeed contains 53 newly drawn maps, but they only occupy the equivalent of some 33 pages. Nevertheless, they excel in both detail and clarity; furthermore, they are supplemented by 25 "site features"--ground plans of archeological locations--and by many superb color illustrations. An hour of browsing produces an overwhelming impulse to call one's travel agent, demanding immediate bookings to the Hopewell Mounds of Ohio, to prehistoric Tikal in the Guatemalan jungle, to the ruins of Machu Picchu in the Andes.

The visual impact of the volume is itself enough to make it an ideal gift, especially for archeology buffs or for anyone fascinated by Native American civilization. The text is equally valuable: authoritative, up-to-date, honest in admitting ignorance, broadminded in acknowledging alternative views--and written in clear, even stylish, prose. Thus, apropos of "primitive" technology, we read that North American hunters of the Late Archaic period (ca. 3000 BC) had discovered "the advantage of loading energy" into their spear throwers by using flexible materials and stone weights, "much as modern fishermen and golfers have discovered the advantage of flexible shafts."

Part 1 describes the European discovery and conquest of America, and early speculation about Native American origins. In the 19th Century, wonderful artifacts of prehistoric peoples came increasingly to light; however, "In the racist and generally anti-Indian thought of the day, it was felt that these could not have been the dark-skinned Indians, but a white race which had disappeared long ago." Such attitudes persist in theories about sunken continents or visitors from outer space, as in the books of Erich von Daniken; as Coe et al. write, "This reflects a general unwillingness on the part of Europeans and Euro-Americans to allow the American Indians their great achievements."

Part 2, "The First Americans," sets matters straight by discussing the early peopling of America from Siberia, around 10000 BC; Part 3, "North America," traces developments down to the "ethnographic present" of white intrusion on the Pacific coast, around AD 1800. Part 4, "Mesoamerica," presents the culture history of the area from northern Mexico to Honduras. Part 5, "South America," concentrates on the cultures of the Andes and their culmination in the Inca Empire. Finally, Part 6, "The Living Heritage," reminds us that Ancient America did not totally end with European conquest; it survives in Eskimo hunting techniques, in Hopi ritual drama, in the handlooms of Guatemala and Peru. I would only emphasize the "endangered species" status of such survivals: if it is important for us to protect whooping cranes, how much more valuable might it be to preserve bodies of cultural knowledge which represent unique, centuries-old, human adaptations to the diverse environments of our Hemisphere?

Specialist readers will find occasional errors of fact, and even rarer misspellings of names like Motecuhzoma. These do not detract from the achievement of the work. The preface says, "there is a need for a book that looks at everything ." The authors have indeed aimed high, and they have been amazingly successful. As an archeological, historical, and cultural survey of two continents--an atlas, and more--this volume has no competition.

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