Tuesday, June 10, 2014

"Global history" that leaves out half of the globe

One would think that a work that claims to be "global" in scope would cover the entire world. So what should we make of the new book, A Companion to Global Historical Thought, that leaves out half of the globe? Is this ignorance, oversight, condescension, or what? Here is the citation:

A Companion to Global Historical Thought (2014, edited by Prasenjit Duara, Viren Murthy, and Andrew Sartori; Wiley Blackwell.

I haven't seen the actual book, just the table of contents and one chapter that an author had posted online. The first section, "Premodern historical thought," reviews history and historical thought in a variety of early traditions, from India to China to the Ottoman empire. So where is the New World? I checked the publisher's website, and found this blurb. I had to add two and a half words to avoid lying (I wouldn't want to post something blatantly incorrect, would I?):

A Companion to Global Historical Thought provides an in-depth overview of the development of historical thinking from the earliest times to the present, across part of the world, directly addressing the issues of historical thought in a semi-globalized context.  FROM THE PUBLISHERS WEBSITE

If the editors are willing to devote eight chapters to these various regional traditions of "premodern historical thought," one would think they might have been able to skip one of the TWO chapters on India to include at least one chapter on the ancient New World.

Did ancient New World cultures have historical traditions before the arrival of European conquerors? of course they did. Most likely every distinct culture (and there were literally thousands in the New World prior to Columbus) had a historical tradition. But there are at least four regions where these indigenous traditions are sufficiently well known (with surviving oral and written accounts) and sufficiently analyzed by rigorous scholars, to warrant inclusion alongside early Japan, China, and India.

(1) Central Mexico

The Aztecs had a rich tradition of political and social history, and the scholarly bibliography runs into the hundreds of works. Here are four important ones:
  • Boone, Elizabeth H.  (2000)  Stories in Red and Black: Pictorial Histories of the Aztecs and Mixtecs. University of Texas Press, Austin.
  • Gillespie, Susan D.  (1989)  The Aztec Kings: The Construction of Rulership in Mexica History. University of Arizona Press, Tucson.
  • Navarette Linares, Federico  (2011)  Los orígenes de los pueblos indígenas del Valle de México: Los altépetl y sus historias. Instituto de Investigaciones Históricas, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Mexico City.
  • Nicholson, H. B.  (1971)  Pre-Hispanic Central Mexican Historiography. In Investigaciones contemporáneas sobre la historia de México, pp. 38-81. El Colegio de México and University of Texas Press, Mexico City and Austin.
Or check out some of my own works on the topic:
  • Smith, Michael E.  (1984)  The Aztlan Migrations of the Nahuatl Chronicles: Myth or History? Ethnohistory 31:153-186.
  • Smith, Michael E.  (1992)  Rhythms of Change in Postclassic Central Mexico: Archaeology, Ethnohistory, and the Braudellian Model. In Annales, Archaeology, and Ethnohistory, edited by A. Bernard Knapp, pp. 51-74. Cambridge University Press, New York

(2) Oaxaca

Both the Mixtec and Zapotec speaking polities of Oaxaca maintained painted books and carved stone records of their histories. Many of these have survived, and they have been rigorously analyzed by scholars. A few examples:
  • Jansen, Maarten E.R.G.N. and Gabina Aurora Pérez Jinénez  (2011)  The Mixtec Pictorial Manuscrirpts: Time, Agency and Memory in Ancient Mexico. Brill, Leiden.
  • Oudijk, Michel R.  (2000)  Historiography of the Bènizàa: The Postclassic and Early Colonial Periods (1000-1600 A.D.). CNWS Publications vol. 84. Research School of Asian, African, and Amerindian Studies, Universiteit Leiden, Leiden.
  • Urcid, Javier  (2001)  Zapotec Hieroglyphic Writing. Studies in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology vol. 34. Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, DC.

(3) The Maya area

The historical traditions of the Classic-period Maya were recorded in stone (and probably in painted books that have not survived), and the traditions of their conquest-era descendants were recorded in painted hieroglyphic books and maintained in oral tradition:
  • Houston, Stephen D.  (1993)  Hieroglyphs and History at Dos Pilas: Dynastic Politics of the Classic Maya. University of Texas Press, Austin.
  • Roys, Ralph L.  (1967)  The Book of Chilam Balam of Chumayel. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman
  • Schele, Linda and Peter Mathews  (1998)  The Code of Kings: The Language of Seven Sacred Maya Temples and Tombs. Simon and Schuster, New York.

(4) The Inca

Historical traditions are less well preserved in cultures that lacked full writing systems, but Inca professional historians kept track of history and the accounts were taken down in writing soon after the Spanish conquest:
  • Covey, R. Alan  (2006)  Chronology, Succession, and Sovereignty: The Politics of Inka Historiography and Its Modern Interpretation. Comparative Studies in Society and History 48:169-199.
  • Julien, Catherine  (2000)  Reading Inca History. University of Iowa Press, Iowa City.
So, if history did exist as a self-conscious domain of discourse in New World societies, and if many texts have survived, and if historical traditions have been ably analyzed by scholars for decades, then why were they left out of this book? To repeat, was this due to ignorance, oversight, condescension, or what?

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