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Unearthing America's Ancient Past

Posted by Josh Rothman  March 30, 2011 08:10 AM

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As Americans, we're used to thinking of our history as beginning in 1776 -- or, if we're really pushing it, in 1492. Daniel Richter, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania, has a longer attention span. His new book, Before the Revolution: America's Ancient Pasts, begins around the year 900, and shows how two ancient civilizations from different sides of the Atlantic converged. Thomas Paine may have written, in Common Sense, that Americans could "begin the world over again" -- but to understand America, Richter argues, you need to think in terms of its "layered pasts," and to see how "ancient worlds remain beneath the surface to mold the nation's current contours."


Landscape (View of a Town), c. 1753; Worcester Art Museum.

Richter begins a half-millenium before Columbus's arrival. History was already happening in North America, where Ancient Native civilizations (like the one built by the Anasazi) were rising and falling; amidst a changing climate, new ways of life, powered by a revolution in agriculture, were being established in new parts of the continent. In Europe, meanwhile, during what we often call the Middle Ages, things were changing, too. Agriculture allowed for the accumulation of wealth, and European land started being divided up into parcels, ruled by armed lords, in the system we now call feudalism. Richter begins by exploring the roots of these two different ways of life -- one driven by an idea of property, the other more decentralized -- which were, unbeknownst to either side, on a crash-course.

Conventional wisdom has it that invading Europeans simply wiped out the Native way of life. In fact, Richter argues, it's better to think of what happened in terms of historical layers, each new layer inheriting the shape of the previous one. In the fifteenth century, conquistadores brought the European Middle Ages to America, fueled by religious zeal; but, almost at the same time, European traders built a different kind of life, learning to coexist with Native civilization and importing a sensibility we might recognize as modern and capitalistic. Soon after, farmers arrived, seeking to divide up and own North American land; then, in the seventeenth century, European governments started getting in on the action, sending armies to conquer not only Native Americans, but independent Europeans as well. Each of these layers, Richter writes, took root only amidst chaos, with violence, and against resistance. At each step, old ways of life were forced aside to make way for the new.

By 1776, Americans, far from starting the world anew, were inheriting a world that was already incredibly rich and complex. Richter prefers to call them "Atlanteans": people who couldn't be easily pigeonholed as American, European, or African, but who "partook of all three identities, and of the seaborne commercial and imperial networks that tied them together across the Atlantic." His vision of early American reveals a place less like Colonial Williamsburg, and more like the deck of the Pequod, in Moby-Dick: a new kind of hybrid civilization, built atop the layered ruins of many older ones. Every schoolkid reads about the Founding Fathers. But their stories, Richter writes, "began a thousand years ago."

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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