Catalogue of an ethnic mosaic

The Oxford Encyclopedia of Mesoamerican Cultures
March 8, 2002

Why Mesoamerica? What is it about this particular geo-cultu-ral slice of the world that is so deserving of three volumes, 1,385 pages and an accordingly hefty, if institutionally targeted, price tag? This is the question series editor David Carrasco addresses in his preface, giving a thoughtful and persuasive exposition of why a term still known to relatively few encapsulates history and ideas of importance to any student of the human past.

Mesoamerica is defined as a zone of cultural interaction covering what is today central and southeastern Mexico, the whole of Guatemala, Belize and El Salvador, as well as portions of Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Its topography, as much distinguished by changes in altitude as terrain, contrasts the volcanic heights that form its lengthy spine with the humid tropical forests of its lowland expanses and the parched badlands of its northern frontier.

Human communities developed within specific ecological niches, finding themselves strong in certain resources but in need of others. The early trade networks this encouraged led to the region-wide spread of ideas and material culture. The perceived unity of Mesoamerica thus emerges from its shared ideologies, artistic conventions and intellectual accomplishments, as well as its innovative agricul-tural adaptations and more prosaic stone-age technologies.

It was from this milieu that an astonishingly rich collection of cultural traditions, beginning with that of the Olmec in about 1500BC, took root and flourished. Later Maya, Zapotec, Teotihuacan, Toltec and Aztec cultures - to name only the best known - emerged from complex patterns of sequential and coeval development. While all of them learnt from precursors and neighbours, each devised its own solution to the problems of political organisation, agricultural intensification, architectural design and urbanism - creating cities that in a few cases touched about 200,000 people. Some, most notably the Maya, developed full writing systems, and carved texts on monumental sculpture and painted them in screenfold books. These and similar notations contributed to a sophisticated knowledge of the night sky that stands as one of the great culminative achievements of Mesoamerican civilisation. Cycles of war and famine periodically drove certain centres or whole societies into oblivion, only for others to rise and take their place.

Several factors are bringing this story into ever-greater focus. The tremendous quantity of physical remains means that there are few, if any, richer archaeological environments anywhere in the world. It is still possible to enter (as I did in September) a ruined city unknown to science until last year, with pyramids reaching up to 30m in height and carved monuments lying scattered across its tree-shrouded plazas. With serious study barely 150 years old, we are scarcely beyond a pioneering era. One modern priority is conservation. The forests that protect certain sub-regions shrink depressingly year by year, and sites in all areas require greater protection from the ravages of looting.

While the discoveries brought by excavation in the field have been dramatic, they have been matched by those made in more comfortable surroundings. Progress in deciphering hieroglyphic scripts, the steady stream of new knowledge to emerge from colonial documents and continuing ethnographic studies all provide powerful ways to understand ancient practices, mentalities and history.

The wealth of new data published over the past two decades can be disorientating - difficult to access and digest. A clear objective of this book is to take the most significant of these directions and place them within the wider body of established knowledge. Avoiding theoretical posturing, it provides a comprehensive summary of what we now know. The 617 entries are the work of 344 contributors; a truly impressive total that goes beyond the simply great and good to give a broad and well-balanced range of perspectives. There is a sizeable representation of Hispanic writers and res-earchers, bridging the national-international divide that all too often sees two sets of scholars speaking to their own language audiences. The dearth of indigenous writers, while unfortunate, is less wilful neglect than a reflection of the wider history of social exclusion in the region.

Topics range from formative geology through to the cultural particularities of each native civilisation. But one of the strengths of the encyclopedia, and a departure from the norm, is the strong sense it portrays of Mesoamerica's continuity, with significant emphasis given to the colonial and early modern eras. As Carrasco reminds us, Mesoamerica was the point of collision between the old and new worlds. It was on the coast of Veracruz, Mexico, in 1519 that indigenous peoples - themselves steeped in long traditions of conquest and subjugation - first encountered a foe who, if hardly more rapacious, was certainly, with steel arms, gunpowder and horses, better equipped for the task. The conquest of the Americas is an event that still lives in cultural memory, and its political and social ramifications are far from played out. The mixing of Spanish and native bloodlines has produced the dominant mestizo society of modern Mesoamerica, but the original ethnic mosaic encountered by the conquistadors is still very much in existence. Continuing tensions between elements of society set apart by race, wealth and access to political power intermittently erupt into violence. At its worst, as in the Guatemalan civil war of the 1980s, there have been episodes of regional ethnicide. Postcolonial Mesoamerica is still trying to forge unifying national identities that escape their inheritance of social injustice and oppression.

This eye towards continuity and transformation is a clue to another of the motivating factors behind these volumes: the rising interest - if still more evident in the United States than elsewhere - in the broad category of "non-western" subjects. In part, this is in reaction to ingrained Eurocentric traditions but, equally, these areas often provide special points of contact between the ancient and contemporary worlds, between theory and practice, text and artefact. Mesoamerican studies exemplify the move towards interdisciplinary approaches, where anthropology, ethnography, archaeology, art history and epigraphy are brought together in pursuit of better-grounded interpretations. The complexity of Mesoamerican civilisation provides us with an entirely different new-world take on what it means to live within human systems - be they urban communities, states and empires, religious orders, kin groups or class structures. Its approaches to art and the body give us a view of how humans might define and represent themselves in the absence of our classical models. Through studying Mesoamerican religion, we gain insights into alternative cultural codes and the wider realm of comparative philosophy.

The encyclopedic genre presents certain drawbacks, and this book does not fully escape them. While the majority of topics are organised logically, a few will always resist labelling within obvious alphabetical categories, and students in search of certain themes will need to spend time with the synopsis. There is culpability, however, in the quality of the photographs, which are seldom more than perfunctory, while their reproduction is uniformly grey and lifeless. This grumble cannot detract from the overall coherence and intelligence of the text, but it does miss an important opportunity to illuminate the discussion and examine an extraordinarily powerful visual culture.

In sum, The Oxford Encyclopedia of Mesoamerican Cultures is a fine work that succeeds on a number of levels. As with all efforts of its kind, it triumphs as consolidation rather than revelation, redefining what constitutes core understanding and marking that essential progress from discovery to orthodoxy.

Simon Martin is honorary research fellow in archaeology, University College London.

The Oxford Encyclopedia of Mesoamerican Cultures: The Civilizations of Mexico and Central America, Volumes 1-3

Editor - David Carrasco
ISBN - 0 19 510815 9
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £250.00
Pages - 1,385

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