Saturday, April 18, 2009

Kingdoms of Gold, Kingdoms of Jade

Kingdoms of Gold, Kingdoms of Jade: the Americas Before Columbus
© 1991 Brian M. Fagan
240 pages, including 180 photographs set into the text

I've had a fascination with the Aztecs for most of my life, since I first saw pictures in second grade depicting their water-city Tenochtitlan. Growing up in Alabama, my fourth-grade history text also introduced me to the fascinating lifestyles of the various indigenous people living here before European colonization. As such, I looked forward to reading this, which I figured would deal heavily with the Aztecs, Maya, and Inca. My interest in getting a book by this particular author stems from a lecture he gave at my university a number of weeks back, in which he described the Mayan temples as both sacred places and ways to catch and channel water. Although the book does address the three cultures I expected, the book's scope is more broad than that and so Fagan does not go into a lot of detail -- there are many other cultures to visit.

Although he begins with brief chapters on the Aztecs and Incans, he quickly moves to the beginning of human settlements in the Americas. I'm hard-pressed to make sense of his organizational scheme: although writing on civilizations and cultures all over the Americas, he tends to move back and forth through time. The smaller cultures are not ignored in favor of the more memorable ones, an approach I grew to like. Although the information I was expecting was not in here -- the water-channelling rule of Mayan temples -- there is a wealth of information on the various cultures of the pre-Columbian Americas. Fagan writes on politics, agriculture, religion, symbolism, and history. He ends the book with a quick lecture on what the Americas gave the world in terms of foodstuffs and medicinal knowledge.

The book is well-written, provides ample pictures for illustration, and provides what I think is a generally good survey of the Americas. I enjoyed this book more than The Great Warming, at any rate, and will continue reading Fagan.

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