Civilizations: Culture, Ambition, and the Transformation of Nature by Felipe Fernández-Armesto. Free Press, 545 pages, $35.00.
August 5, 2001        

Writing history means telling a story. But how do you tell a story whose main characters are environments: ice fields, deserts, tundras, steppes, savannas, swamps, floodplains, highlands, seaboards, forests, jungles, islands, and oceans? If, like Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, you define civilization not in the usual way, as “a phase of social development, or a process of collective self-improvement, or a suitable name for culture on a large scale, or a synonym for excellence endorsed by elites,” but rather as “a relationship between one species” – us – “ and the rest of nature, an environment refashioned to serve human uses,” you will need plenty of narrative pizzazz. This is history that highlights not warfare but farming, fishing, hunting, and herding; not dynasties and revolutions but crops and tools; not treaties but trade routes. “Civilizations” does this so engagingly and so compellingly that many of its readers will henceforth find themselves thinking about the past in the latter categories at least as readily as in the former ones.

When did civilization begin? In this perspective, it didn’t. When viewed as an activity rather than the end product of an activity, civilization is virtually coterminous with human group life. One of Fernandez-Armesto’s theoretical targets is the “diffusion” model, according to which all or most civilizations had a common origin and gradually spread. There are no such overarching continuities, he replies – though there are striking resemblances where similar environments elicit similar responses. The lesson here is the irreducible pluralism of civilizations.

In the main, however, “Civilizations” is not a work of theory but a smorgasbord of lore, anecdote, chronology, and comparison. Fernandez-Armesto, a professor at Oxford University, is a specialist in comparative colonial history (though that has not kept him from writing several audaciously general surveys before this one, such as “Truth: A History,” “Religion,” and “Millennium,” an overview of the last thousand years). He has also read widely in anthropology, archaeology, geography, mythology, and art history. One is tempted to call him – in disregard of his own usage – a supremely civilized writer.

There are wonders here and, equally fascinating, a profusion of details about half-familiar peoples and places. The Mongols, for example, are to many of us simply a name for nomadic Asian warrior hordes. Fernandez-Armesto focuses, however, on the consequences of the long Mongol peace; in particular, the far-flung system of roads they established and policed. Without these routes across the Eurasian steppes, “it is hard to imagine any of the rest of Western history working out as it did, for these were the roads that carried Chinese ideas and transmitted technology westwards and opened up European minds to the vastness of the world.”

A lengthy comparison of Aztec and Inca civilizations – besides being thickly sprinkled with unforgettable names like Mixtec, Zapotec, Tilantongo, Tetzacoalco, Tlatelolco, Tututepec, Huexotzinca, Cholulteca, Quispanguanca, and Cochabamba – brilliantly relates their art and statecraft to the different types of highland each inhabited. Mexico is essentially a broad plateau; while the length and steepness of the Andes meant a far greater diversity of environments, where “between sea and snow, different ecozones are stacked as if in tiers.” A cosmic observer, “called upon to identify the world’s most impressive empire of the early sixteenth century, might, if he made his judgment according to environmental criteria rather than by standards of technological proficiency or military power, be tempted to pick that of the Inca.”

Fernandez-Armesto is fond of invoking cosmic observers. In a previous book he introduced the Galactic Museum Keepers, looking back at our world with informed curiosity over an immense gulf of time and space (and biology?). In “Civilizations” they reappear, proffering (through the convenient medium of the author’s imagination) several piquant judgments. They will undoubtedly, he reports, pronounce the Indian Ocean, which brought together Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, to be the world’s most influential one. Quite possibly, edible grasses will get equal billing with humans, us “puny parasites … whom wheat has cleverly exploited to spread itself around the world.” In the Galactic Museum, he conjectures, the Earth display “will center on China and cram Western civilization into a corner of some small vitrine.”

The preeminence of China and the centrality of the Indian Ocean are among the book’s larger themes. Fernandez-Armesto pays tribute to the extraordinary energy and adaptability of Chinese culture (and of the rice and millet on which it is based). About its influence, he notes that “until the last three hundred years, most of the inventions and technical advances which made a real difference to people’s lives came from China.” And three hundred years, as readers of this book will hardly need to be reminded, is not a very long time.

As a student of colonialism, Fernandez-Armesto naturally emphasizes ocean voyaging. We learn how seafarers divide up bodies of water – not in relation to the land masses that border them but by wind and current, about which we get much information. In particular, we learn the all-important distinction between monsoon winds and trade winds, which accounts for the rate and timing of Arab and European expansion and of the spread of Islam and Christianity. This is why, until the 16th century, the Atlantic and Pacific, with their unmapped winds and complex currents, “were obstacles to communication, keeping peoples apart, whereas the Indian Ocean was already a centuries-old system of highways, linking most of the cultures which lined its shores.”

Not only is Fernandez-Armesto dazzlingly erudite, he is also a fine stylist. Arresting phrases continually flash out, sending us on quickened with a little thrill of strangeness. We watch Inuit hunters “tracking the musk ox to its graveyards on the shore of the Arctic Ocean, devouring its entrails, boiled and dressed with seal oil.” The mosque of Jenne is “a towering confection of smooth adobe that looks like a sweetmeat – as though a giant had drizzled fondant into fantastic piles and turrets.” The site of ancient Jericho is “a land blasted by a devil’s breath, mephitically hot, crusted with sulfur and sodium, beslimed by a loveless river which slithers fish to their deaths in a sea of salt.” Before the astonished Cortes and his men, “the gaudily painted, bloodily stained temples of Tenochtitlan rose from a lake in a valley seventy-five hundred feet above sea level, rimmed by jagged ranges.”

Stupendously informative and elegantly written, “Civilizations” is an embarrassment of riches. But read it with an atlas handy – there are, alas, no maps.