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Geography and Ethnography: Perceptions of the World in Pre-Modern Societies

Geography and Ethnography: Perceptions of the World in Pre-Modern Societies

Edited by Kurt A. Raaflaub and Richard J.A. Talbert (The Ancient World: Comparative Histories). Pp. xv + 357, b&w figs. 65. Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, England, and Malden, Mass. 2010. $139.95. ISBN 978-1-4051-9146-3 (cloth).

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Geography and Ethnography is the third volume in the groundbreaking series The Ancient World: Comparative Histories. These volumes, of which there are now five and more scheduled, explore a variety of historical issues with a wide geographical and chronological scope that shed light on both the similarities and differences of cultural practices and perspectives worldwide. The contributors to this volume faced a challenging task—to elucidate geographical, ethnographic, cartographic, and cosmological notions of highly disparate peoples from a long chronological distance. Although most of the societies under consideration were literate and left written sources and even maps, others—particularly those in the New World—are known largely from the accounts of explorers and travelers and from archaeological evidence such as wall paintings, images on pottery, and other artifacts.

The list of confounding issues is long. What is important to us in the West today may not have been important to the ancients. What has come down to us is highly fragmentary and selective and may not represent ancient realities (or only parts thereof). Worldviews changed over time, and it is often difficult to say which perspective is the most valid. Others are highly metaphorical, and discerning their true meanings is difficult, if not impossible. Ancient geographies and ethnographies for the same society could be different if they served different purposes; for example, maps composed for military use were different from those that served commercial endeavors. Moreover, most of the information drawn on in these essays represents the outlooks of elites and most likely those of males. Were these shared with the common people and females? Finally, the reports of both ancient (e.g., Herodotus) and more recent observers can be highly unreliable.

Despite these obstacles, the editors of this volume have managed to compile an impressive series of essays that illuminate ancient and premodern views across a wide spectrum of societies. A remarkable number of authors discuss (and often illustrate) ancient maps that provide important clues as to how ancient societies viewed themselves and the lands and people around them, and how broad or narrow their visions were. Virtually all the ancients placed themselves at the center of their known and posited worlds, and although some used the cardinal points for orientation, this was not always the case. The Other was almost universally depicted as inferior (e.g., the “barbarians” of the Greeks’ world), though such ethnocentric characterizations were usually tempered in the case of trading partners. Several contributors demonstrate the cross-fertilization of traditions, as in the case of Hellenistic influences in India; biblical and Hellenistic Greek influence on the Hebrew worldview; the Mesopotamian, Persian, and Hellenistic roots of Arab geography; the role of Roman hegemony in Strabo’s outlook; and the extensive influence of the Judaic Book of Jubilees on Christian theology. In other cases, there were competing traditions where Brahmin, Buddhist, and Janic outlooks vied with one another as well as with Arabic and Persian perspectives. Each of the 19 contributors to this volume deals with the subject in a different way. Sometimes this reflects the different kinds of sources relied on, while in other cases the author has chosen to focus on a particular text, map, artifact, or combination thereof.

Minkowski considers the dharmic “human geography” of the Indians through an examination of the Vedas and Purānas, ancient Sanskrit texts that deal with both peoples and topography. He notes, however, that Buddhist, Arabic, and Persian influences were also strong and offered different worldviews at various times and places in India. In a nice segue to Minkowski, Plofker explores different Indian cosmologies, comparing and contrasting the traditional “sacred” Purānas with the “scientific” Siddhāntas and the interactions between them.

By analyzing various characteristics of ancient Chinese murals and maps in their archaeological context, Hsu attempts to reconstruct the visual perception of landscapes, both real and imagined, in the period from 479 B.C.E. to 220 C.E. She focuses on methods of representation and how these convey meaning. In his brief piece, Henderson analyzes the “ordering of various types of space” (64) in ancient China based on a grid divided into nine equal squares. He maintains that this nonary grid accurately reflects ancient Chinese orientation to the world and represents a perspective slightly different from those of “geography, cartography, and even cosmography” (64). He argues that this space or world ordering was not concerned with conceptions of the world or views of outsiders, but was designed for internal consumption. Moreover, this geometrization was abandoned in Imperial times. What might be called the “cultural geography” of China between 221 B.C.E. and 220 C.E. is the subject of Loewe’s essay. Using contemporaneous written accounts of China’s neighbors, both friendly and not, Loewe shows how perceptions at this time and place were heavily influenced by the reports of traders who had far-flung contacts.

DuVal has set herself the unenviable task of discerning the worldview of the Mississippian peoples of the American heartland between 1000 and 1500 C.E. Despite their chronological proximity to us, the Mississippians are difficult to penetrate, as they left no written records, and the archaeological record is highly ambiguous. Nevertheless, there are some accounts of early Spanish explorers, and DuVal is able to state with some authority that their worldview was radically different from that of later Native Americans, for whom we have a richer body of evidence. She describes highly centralized chiefdoms that engaged their neighbors in trade and warfare and therefore had a well-developed sense of space. Mundy argues that geography as we know it “has a Mediterranean pedigree,” and thus the term has no utility for understanding the Aztecs, whose “ways of knowing” are alien to western notions (110). Using linguistic and archaeological data, Spanish cadastral records and codices (some of which are copies of pre-Hispanic documents and contain maps), and carved stone images, she teases out the “spatial imagination” of the Aztecs, which, unsurprisingly, placed them at the center of a rather poorly conceived broader world. Spatial ordering is also the subject of Julien’s piece on the Inca worldview, in which she draws on Inca accounts and maps constructed after the Spanish conquest. What she describes is a “remembered” or reconstructed view in which Peru was envisioned as having four parts. Her emphasis is on spatial perception rather than a comprehensive worldview.

Michalowski draws on ancient texts, an extraordinary map dating to ca. 900 B.C.E., and inscriptions from stone monuments to reconstruct the Mesopotamians’ perceptions of their neighbors during turbulent times. Since the Sumerians rendered their histories metaphorically, he has to interpret the real meaning of the texts. He concludes that ancient kingdoms frequently clashed with one another but also engaged in widespread trading networks, resulting in a “fascination and fear of the other world” (163). These attitudes changed over time, however, and it must be kept in mind that what has come down to us are the perceptions of a literate elite.

Of all the contributors, Moers takes the topic of this volume the most literally, and he provides a good commentary on the geography and ethnography of Pharaonic Egypt. He discerns inconsistencies in both areas (he writes about “multiple geographies”), which may stem from the fact that some outsiders were enemies and others were trading partners, and sometimes they were both, which caused great tension. He also discusses the core-periphery orientation of the Egyptians.

The Book of Jubilees, an obscure Jewish text from the mid second century B.C.E., is the source of Scott’s vision of the ancient Hebrew world. He traces its roots to the books of Genesis and Exodus and other early theological writings. His perception of ancient ethnography is heavily reliant on biblical genealogies, especially that of Noah and his descendants, and his view of ancient geography is based on a world map that is part of the Book of Jubilees. He concludes that the ancient Jewish worldview was highly deterministic, derived from a divine plan, and that it exerted inordinate influence on later perceptions, especially those of Christians.

Using texts and literary, archaeological, and cartographic evidence, Cole highlights critical aspects of the ancient Greek worldview. Beginning with the iconography of Achilles’ shield, as described by Homer, she surveys various Greek perspectives on the world, relying heavily on Herodotus and even the tragedian Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound to reconstruct critical aspects of the ancient Greek outlook. Romm also looks at the ancient Greek worldview, drawing on such classic sources as Herodotus and the philosophers Plato, Aristotle, and Isocrates. The Greeks’ nascent awareness of different continents, climates, and cultures forms the basis of much of modern western geography and ethnography. They were early mapmakers and travelers and showed an extraordinary interest in all aspects of the world they inhabited. Romm’s scope is broad—the sixth century B.C.E. through Hellenistic times, with a mention of Roman geography from the second century C.E.

Dueck deconstructs aspects of Strabo’s famous first-century Geography, arguing that Strabo’s survey of the lands surrounding the Mediterranean was heavily influenced by Roman hegemony, as it was written at the height of the Roman empire. He distinguishes between scientific and descriptive geography, placing Strabo in the descriptive camp and pointing out that he was concerned with the inhabited world, not the nether regions.

Talbert asks if the Roman worldview is “beyond recovery” (252), but in his essay, he hardly despairs. He argues that the Romans reconfigured space to fit their organizational viewpoint for the purposes of control and governance—thus, they laid out cities in grids, made maps, built roads marked by milestones, surveyed their lands, and clearly delineated the boundaries of everything from individually owned fields to the borders of conquered lands. They were concerned with time and constructed elaborate sundials that incorporated geographic elements.

The medieval Islamic worldview of the Arabs is the subject of Silverstein’s piece. He confines his analyses to the period of 850–1000 C.E., maintaining that Arabic geography during this time had its roots in Mesopotamian, Persian, and Hellenistic sources and perspectives. With ample texts at his disposal, he is able to identify specifics; for example, the idea of three continents, seven “climates,” and a surrounding ocean was borrowed from the Hellenistic Greeks. He further argues that the Arab geographers were inconsistent in their credulity; some accepted at face value earlier sources that were quite fantastic, whereas others rejected them.

In her contribution, Savage-Smith examines the Book of Curiosities, an 11th-century C.E. Egyptian text that contains a schematic map of the Mediterranean. She considers whether the map was for military or commercial purposes, but her answer is ambiguous at best. The map was only recently discovered and has not been totally deciphered, but it certainly provides insights into the considerable Egyptian geographic and navigation skills at the time of its writing.

Lozovski reconsiders classical influence on the geographic and ethnographic perceptions of medieval Europeans in her essay. She debunks the commonly held notion that medieval geographic scholarship was retarded and handicapped by an over-reliance on ancient and Early Christian sources and models and only improved with the rediscovery of Ptolemy’s Geography in the 15th century. Instead, she maintains that new concepts and perspectives were introduced in Early Medieval times and that creative reconfigurations of classical and Christian geographic traditions were devised to reinforce geographical, political, and ideological messages. For example, the Carolingians co-opted Roman triumphal geography and Roman imperial ideology to glorify Frankish conquests.

The collection concludes with Buisseret’s examination of different European national traditions of mapmaking after the rediscovery of Ptolemy’s Geography in 1407. This was the age of exploration, and there was a huge demand for accurate maps. The Germans, Italians, Spanish, Portuguese, French, and English all engaged in cartographic endeavors that varied according to perceived needs and usages. The Spanish, for example, employed maps as part of an imperial administrative strategy.

There is little to criticize in this admirable volume. The quality of some of the contributions is better than others, but the gap is not large. It is a bit curious that there is so little mention (virtually none) of gender. The essays of Romm and Cole overlap a bit, Dueck strays from his topic on occasion, and there are some inconsistencies in American vs. English spelling. But these are petty quibbles. This compendium is an outstanding contribution to our knowledge of ancient geography, ethnography, and cosmology worldwide. Substantive issues are dealt with intelligently and creatively by some of the best scholars in the world.

Peter S. Allen
Department of Anthropology
Rhode Island College
Providence, Rhode Island 02908

Book Review of Geography and Ethnography: Perceptions of the World in Pre-Modern Societies, edited by Kurt A. Raaflaub and Richard J.A. Talbert

Reviewed by Peter S. Allen

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 115, No. 4 (October 2011)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1154.Allen

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