Civilizations: Culture, Ambition, and the Transformation of Nature
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Erudite, wide-ranging, a work of dazzling scholarship written with extraordinary flair, Civilizations redefines the subject that has fascinated historians from Thucydides to Gibbon to Spengler to Fernand Braudel: the nature of civilization.
To the author, Oxford historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto, a society's relationship to climate, geography, and ecology are paramount in determining its degree of success. "Unlike previous attempts to write the comparative history of civilizations," he writes, "it is arranged environment by environment, rather than period by period or society by society." Thus, for example, tundra civilizations of Ice Age Europe are linked with those of the Inuit of the Pacific Northwest, the Mississippi Mound Builders with the deforesters of eleventh-century Europe.
Civilizations brilliantly connects the world of ecologist, geologist, and geographer with the panorama of cultural history.
uplifted in surprise. “Have you descended hither by the paths of the sky or”—they added, as if it were equally improbable—“have you sailed the sea?” Columbus claimed that the islanders who greeted him at the end of his first transatlantic crossing used similar words, with a similar gesture. It later became a topos of travel literature, designed to show explorers’ hosts as technically inferior and easily gulled.50The Egyptian artists caricatured the people of Punt with other signs of savagery and
Tradition ascribes its creation, knocked together about 200 B.C. out of a series of older fortifications, to Shih Huang Ti, who was called—or called himself—“First Emperor.” He mobilized seven hundred thousand laborers, built a network of roads and canals, and when he died was buried with six thousand clay models of soldiers and servants to accompany him in the next life. He was a theatrician of power on a huge scale—usually a sign of insecurity, betraying the kind of contemporary reputation he
keep armies of tens of thousands in the field. The best yields could be obtained only by rotation; eventually, soybeans provided the alternate crop which this system demanded, but it is not clear when—perhaps not until the mid-first millennium B.C., if any store can be set by the story that Lord Huan of Ch’i first brought it home from a campaign against the Jung barbarians of the mountains in 664 .35 Wheat was a latecomer, always tainted with foreign origins as “one that came,” or mentioned in
the looking glass: inversions of normalcy abound, contradictions coexist. Nationstates survive contrasting trends towards fragmentation and globalization. “ Modernization” yields Grossr‰ume which resemble old empires. Geopolitics seems subordinate to mentalities and identities, but blood and soil remain mutually, indelibly stained: the Dayton Peace Accords are caked in them; mass graves in Kosovo are dug and drenched in them. The Berlin Wall was dismantled, it seems, only to be re-erected as a
apostle of the Amazon,” who devoted his career to the defense of his riverside mission against Portuguese slavers—recorded what survived of the protocivilization of the varea. The riverbankers known as the Omagua had garden plots for manioc, and houses generally situated on islands, beaches or banks of the river; all are low lying lands liable to be flooded; and although continual experience teaches them that at times, when the river is in high flood, they are left without a garden-mound and