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lecture i-3 american civilizations

lecture i-3 american civilizations - World history I...

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World history I Lecture I.3 Civilizations in Isolation: the Americas In our first class, we talked about the concept of civilization in general terms. Just to remind you, I suggested that a civilization is a type of a culture that is characterized by urban life as its leading feature. The economic prerequisites to the development of civilization are agricultural surplus, the means of storing and distributing that surplus, and consequent specialization of some members of the population into non-survival tasks, including craft production, military and political leadership, and religious and intellectual activity. I offered a working definition of a city as a settlement which exists for the purpose of exercising these specialized tasks. Now, the purpose of this class is to study world civilization in the period prior to Columbus and the beginnings of European colonialism. This does raise the question of how to deal with the civilizations of the Americas. Before 1492, contact between cultures in America and those of Asia, Europe, or Africa were fleeting at best and we cannot speak of any meaningful interaction or influence between them. It is possible that Polynesians from the Pacific Ocean reached South America, but this is by no means certain and the contacts were not extensive. There is a reference that suggests that one Roman ship might possibly have crossed the Atlantic and a legend about a sixth-century Irish saint who also may have done so. The only certain contact was by the Viking Leif Ericsson shortly before the year 1000. Traces of a Norse camp have been found in Newfoundland but they didn’t get much further. There were Norwegian settlements in Greenland for a couple of centuries but a cooling climate in the fifteenth century made them unsustainable. 1
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In short, the Americas don’t become a part of the larger story of world civilization until after the period covered by this course; they existed in isolation from the rest of the world. So, although they actually flourished later than most of the other cultures we will be considering this semester, I am going to introduce American civilizations first. We can think of them as case studies of how civilizations can develop in the absence of outside stimulus. In this way, perhaps they can serve as a kind of “baseline” to which we can compare the interactions of societies in Europe, Asia, and Africa. American societies were not only isolated from the Eurasian civilizations; they were also relatively isolated from each other. The reason for this was geography. The Eurasian landmass – to which we may add the northern shore of Africa – has an east-west axis. This meant that, while there was considerable diversity of environments, there were also fairly extensive regions of climatic similarity. For instance, a series of great plains, or steppes, extends through central Eurasia from the western frontiers of China to Russia and Hungary [MAP]. Warm, moderately watered “Mediterranean” conditions dominate
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