meilufay’s #CBR4 review #53 Mexico from the Olmecs to the Aztecs by Michael D. Coe and Rex Koontz (6th edition)
After reading Charles C. Mann’s fantastic 1491: New revelations of the Americas before Columbus, I became very curious about Pre-Columbian history so I bought a small selection of books on the topic from Amazon.com. Mexico from the Olmecs to the Aztecs is clearly intended to be used in a classroom environment (sort of a Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica 101 textbook) and is the companion to Coe’s The Maya. Because there are so many Pre-Columbian civilizations in Mesoamerica, Coe divided up the subject into two volumes, one devoted to the Maya and the other to everyone else.
This book is very well-researched and provides a good overview of Mesoamerican history up till the Spanish conquest of the region. The writing is a little dry but is always very clear. The pre-history part is particularly difficult to get through as Coe basically just sums up the findings of archeologists. I like that he is very clear about differentiating between what we know (these pottery shards and pyramids were found here under such and such circumstances) and how various academics have interpreted these pieces of evidence. Coe provides plenty of photographs, detailed illustrations and maps, which were both pleasant to look at and extremely helpful (particularly when he gets into how bodies where buried or how excavated cities were laid out).
I had no idea, until reading Mann’s book, just how populace or advanced the cultures were in Mesoamerica. It amazes me to think of how, because of the lack of domesticable animals, ancient Mesoamerican civilizations evolved in a completely different way from the European model. These people were forced to become extraordinarily proficient vegetable cultivators (we still don’t know how they developed maize, for instance) because the only animal they could domesticate was the dog (yeah, they ate dog). No cows, no horses, no chickens, no pigs. Because they had no big beasts of burden, they only used the wheel for toys. So no carts, no ploughs. Everything was cultivated by hand. Any animal they ate (other than the dog) had to be caught. Maize and legumes were developed as complementary proteins long before anyone even knew what a complete protein was. Almost every cuisine we can think of would look entirely different without the influence of New World agriculture. Tomatoes, chili peppers and potatoes are just three of the foods that did not exist anywhere else in the world prior to the European exposure to America.
Obviously, this topic is fascinating to me. If you’re interested in it as well, I definitely recommend checking out this book.