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Early Earthquakes in the Americas.

Early Earthquakes in the Americas

By Robert L. Kovach Cambridge University Press, New York, 2004 ISBN 0-121-82489-3 US $90.00, hardcover, 268 p.

This book, written by geophysicist Robert Kovach, documents large earthquakes of the last millennium in the Americas and describes their effects. The author's premise is that much can be learned about earthquakes from myths, legends, and accounts and from the effects of past disasters on human settlements.

The book includes 12 chapters. An introduction (Chapter 1) is followed by short summaries of the seismo-tectonic setting of the Americas (Chapter 2), earthquakes in myths and legends (Chapter 3), and earthquake effects (Chapter 4). The next six chapters are a "cook's tour" of earthquakes in different parts of the New World: Mexico (Chapter 5), the Maya empire (Yucatan, Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras; Chapter 6), Costa Rica, Panama, and Colombia (Chapter 7), Peru and Chile (Chapter 8), California (Chapter 9), the North American Cordillera (Chapter 10), and eastern and central America (Chapter 11). A very short concluding chapter is followed by several appendices, a glossary, bibliographic summaries for each chapter, and a list of references.

Cambridge University Press states that "students and researchers in the fields of earth science, archaeology, and history will greatly benefit from this book. I'm not so sure about this assertion, as I had difficulty, as reviewer, identifying the audience for the book. Geologists would like to know what the geological record can tell them about earthquakes in space and time, but this book probably will not interest them. Seismologists may benefit from the useful tables of historical earthquakes included in the book, but there are no new insights into seismicity in the Americas. Archaeologists need to understand that damage at settlement sites in Central and South America may be the result of earthquakes rather than post-abandonment decay, but the discussion of archaeological sites and earthquake evidence in Chapters 5, 6, 7, and 8 is uneven and somewhat cursory. Some students would find the material interesting, but it is unlikely that the book will be used in many university courses because it is such a niche product.

Professor Kovach argues that earthquakes played a role in the evolution of early cultures in quake-prone regions in the Americas. Few would dispute this statement, because, as the author shows, the myths and legends of early people include animistic references to earthquakes. Further, it is not surprising that ancient Zapotecan, Mayan, Incan, and other ruins show evidence of earthquake damage, as the areas in which these people lived are seismically active. In my view, a more interesting question is "How did early people in the Americas adapt to the strong earthquakes they must have experienced?" These peoples were very familiar with earthquakes and they must have adjusted their lives to limit the damage that quakes caused. Scientists have argued that large earthquakes and volcanic eruptions ended ancient civilizations. I find such arguments unconvincing as they assume that early peoples were unable to adapt to natural disasters. As Professor Kovach points out, ancient civilizations can fall due to many causes, including climate change, epidemics, foreign and civil wars, cultural and social decay, and agricultural and economic collapse. Earthquakes, at most, are the coup de grace of a civilization in terminal decline.

Professor Kovach argues that archaeology can play an important role in extending the historical record of seismicity. I agree, but the book does not demonstrate that this has been, or can be, done in the Americas. The New World record falls far short of that in the Middle East, especially Israel and Jordan, where surface rupture and other earthquake effects can be related to precisely dated events dating back more than 2000 years. Fault offsets and other damage to archaeological sites in the Jordan River valley for example, has been used to determine the magnitude of biblically important quakes.

The organization and presentation suffer from the book's lack of clearly defined audience and purpose. Chapter 2, on seismo-tectonics of the Americas, is only 11 pages and too general to be useful. Furthermore, some of its content is repeated in the regional earthquake chapters. The regional chapters (5-11) seem somewhat forced, with arbitrary geographic boundaries. Why, for example, separate earthquakes in California from those in the North American Cordillera, especially as the chapter on North American Cordillera includes a section on earthquakes in Death Valley, California? California, of course, is part of the North American Cordillera.

Archaeological sites in quake-prone regions are reviewed in several chapters, but the actual evidence for earthquake damage is not discussed in the detail that I would have liked. Earthquake myths, legends, and damage to famous archaeological sites are included in the chapters dealing with Mexico, the Mayan empire, and Peru and Chile, but are scarcely mentioned in the other regional chapters.

The illustrative material, as a whole, will do little to sell the book. Seventy five of the 135 figures in the book are simple black-and-white maps showing earthquake epicentres, faults, and localities mentioned in the text. Some of the maps could have been combined or better annotated. Thirty six of the remaining figures are photographs; some are very good but others show little and could have been deleted.

Here, then, are my summary and recommendation:

Strong points:

* Earthquake tables

* Description of effects of earthquakes on archaeological sites

* Discussion of relation between earthquake intensity and magnitude

* Reference list

Weak points:

* Lack of clear focus

* Structure

* Figures

* Cost (US$90 is a hefty price for a 268-page book)

Recommendation. Unless you are a real earthquake junkie, I would pass on this book.

Reviewed by John J. Clague Department of Earth Sciences Simon Fraser University Burnaby, BC, Canada, V5A 1S6
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Author:Clague, John J.
Publication:Geoscience Canada
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 1, 2006
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