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The Ancient American Civilizations.

The Ancient American Civilizations

Friedrich Katz

Castle Books

Edison, NJ

Originally pub. in Germany, Kinder Verlag 1969, as Vorkolumbische Kulturen

ISBN: 0785818340 $9.99 386 pp.

Castle Books has reprinted The Ancient American Civilizations in a handsome, sturdy volume complete with extensive notes, bibliography, glossary, and maps. Professor Katz's work, though dated, is still a fantastic read and a detailed study of the ancient indigenous civilizations of North and South America. Though he concentrates most heavily on the Aztec (his long standing expertise in Aztec affairs shines here) and Inca, he also covers the entire histories of these regions, from earliest times until their widespread cultural decimation under Spanish occupation.

The only real failure in the book is not the author's fault. Katz presents every conceivable argument and source for information and theories (available at the time of writing) and then argues them all through on their own merits. He has great intellectual curiosity plus the laudable quality of always asking questions out loud and providing all possible variations of answers and research on given topics. Furthermore, as was the case with his Tiahaunaco-Hauri-Inca debate on p. 244, he will readily admit when there is no good answer to a question based on the current level of evidence or knowledge. Which brings us to the only area lacking: the Mayans. Originally a book at the forefront of Amerindian studies, this work is now somewhat dated, especially when it comes to the Mayans. The Mayan studies revolution in the last ten to twenty years has changed the entire nature of both Mayan and Amerindian studies. Before, little was known of this people, their hieroglyphic language was not deciphered, most of their cities and lands were unexplored or unexcavated, and hence they were labeled mysterious and strange. This opened them to every form of speculation from theocratic scholars to Atlantean survivors to extraterrestrial super-scientists. Katz already was ahead of the times in contemplating real broadened theoretical horizons, such as a Chinese or wider Asiatic origin for these American civilizations, so his work is still surprisingly up-to-date and fresh, even given the recent advances such as the breaking of the Mayan language code. But the Mayan studies revolution, one of the great successes of modern archaeology, has left all scholars in the dust.

That said, The Ancient American Civilizations is one of the best historical overviews of this subject available. Easily readable, yet deep, thorough, and expansive, it provides one of the best single-volume sources around. I'm glad this book has been reissued for the general public's consumption (even if the striking cover photograph of a turquoise face mask scared my youngest son a bit with its skeletal intensity). With growing unification of the Americas (economically, culturally, and politically) it is now more important than ever to have a common understanding of our shared past and for Americans to have a deeper comprehension of the history of our continents.
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Author:Fortenberry, Thomas
Publication:Reviewer's Bookwatch
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2005
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