The Americas That Might Have Been: Native American Social Systems through Time

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The Americas that Might Have Been: Native American Social Systems through Time. JULIAN GRANBERRY. University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, 2005. xiii, 204 pp., illus., maps. $29.95 (paper), ISBN: 0-8173-5182-5; $55.00 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8173-1457-1; $29.95 (e-book), ISBN: 0-8173-8345-9.

Two books released in 2005, Charles Mann's 1491 and Julian Granberry's The Americas that Might Have Been, tackled broad questions about how past social systems in the Americas looked prior to European contact. Both authors penned their works for interested lay audiences, not professional archaeologists, anthropologists, or historians. We might then expect (and do indeed find) a certain glossing over of details in these broad brushstrokes that those more intimately knowledgeable about specific culture areas may find hard to overlook. The time period, wide geographical focus, and coarser analytical resolution are where the commonality in these works ends. In the former book, popular science author Mann attempts to describe the peoples and cultures that existed across North and South America the year before Christopher Columbus's (in)famous journey, while Granberry takes a different approach, describing instead what these same societies would have looked like had Columbus and the subsequent wave of Europeans and Africans not arrived in the New World at all.

To run his model of Native American developments forward to the present day, Granberry offers a very particular, self-proclaimed "postprocessual" schema of the pre-Columbian (or rather, never-Columbian) world built upon the explanatory potential of kin systems. His premise is this: kin systems can be grouped into three broad social-cultural types, namely, unitary, dualistic, and trinary (a reductionist scheme that is not meant to be reductionary in its application and interpretive/ analytical value), that reflect all other aspects of a group's potential sociocultural actions. Therefore, if we can determine what type of kin system a prehistoric group had, we can potentially trace their development in these hypothetical uninterrupted Native Americas by supposing how their underlying "social philosophies" would have guided their sociopolitical developments and interactions with each other through time. The reader is advised to linger longer over the first 20 pages of the book in order to fully grasp Granberry's organizing principles and premises. Even the preface is instructional, providing some biographical context for understanding the author's evolution as an anthropologist, personal perspectives on the history of the discipline, and formative experiences with the subject matter.

I take issue with his framing of his kin systems and social philosophy perspective, and with the archaeological and historical cultures he has chosen to help develop and illustrate his model. First, although Granberry takes pains to foresee and counter critiques of his work, boiling down societies into types based on this notion of "social philosophy" is reductionist. He argues that kinship terms and kin systems are not unchanging and are just as subject to change as any other aspect of a sociocultural system (albeit quite slowly), yet he seems to rely very heavily on the idea that these are particularly resilient components of societies that directly reflect a dominant social structure.

Similarly, there are considerable problems with overly reductionist generalizations about prehistoric peoples. For example, Granberry suggests a straight line of development between Poverty Point and the considerably later Mississippian settlements in the Mississippi River valley, an idea that lacks explanatory utility within most research agendas across the region taking place today. Also, although he seems to rely primarily on truly prehistoric archaeological cultures, discussions and graphical depictions of groups like the Creek Confederacy, Iroquois Confederacy, Cherokee, and "Mississippi Towns" in the same paragraphs and maps gave me great pause. …