Before the Revolution: America's Ancient Pasts

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A big scholarly tome that recounts the history of America—as you might guess—prior to the Revolution. The author, Daniel K. Richter, is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. I prevailed upon the library at the University Near Here to buy it after reading this glowing mention from Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution, and they graciously complied. But whenever I do that, I feel obliged to check the book out and read it. So…

It's written more for an academic audience, while I was looking for something more aimed at the "semi-curious semi-educated goofball" market. It was kind of a slog. Richter's writing is adequate, but it rarely sparkles. (Occasionally, he'll let slip an opinion or two into the text via strong wording; that's about it.)

So I read this sort of thing for interesting stories, oddball facts, and a better sense of my country's historical roots. But I'm glad I don't have to pass a test on it. A few things I picked up, big and small, that I was insufficiently aware of before:

  • The Little Ice Age (starting around 1300) had profound effects on both Native Americans and Europeans; the collapse of agricultural systems arguably set things up for the European "discovery" and eventual takeover of America.

  • For example, the Native city of Cahokia, just east of today's St. Louis, lasted for hundreds of years; at its peak it probably had more inhabitants than London at the same time. But it began to decline around 1300 and was abandoned a few centuries later. And today, it's just mounds.

  • This one is embarrassing: there was a French-inspired 1690 Indian raid on my home town (then called Salmon Falls); this raid (and others like it) inspired a little prequel to the French and Indian War a few decades later.

Quibble: early on in the book, discussing Native agriculture, Richter is discussing the dietary properties of the crops. He refers to zein as an amino acid; it's not, it's a protein. He discusses lysine and tryptophan "whose absence is a major causes [sic] of pellagra." Although blunders are inevitable in a big work, letting two slip by within the same paragraph doesn't inspire confidence.

But, on the whole, recommended to you history buffs. (Here is a review from Charles C. Mann in the WSJ.)

Last Modified 2024-01-28 2:37 PM EDT