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My Top Ten Books of 2022
My favourite books of the past year: From Buddhist Self-Mummification to Mexican Narco-Cults
My apologies to readers and subscribers for a very low level of December content, I have managed to catch just about every flu and cold doing the rounds. Rest assured I have many articles in the pipeline and hopefully come New Year I’ll be back on form.
Aztec Philosophy: Understanding a World in Motion - James Maffie
Many civilisations have produced unique and profound works of philosophy and religion, and yet Mesoamerica is almost always forgotten. With perhaps the exception of the Mayan calendar, most people don’t rank these cultures alongside China, India or Greece for intellectual output. Scratch the surface however, and an entirely alien and fascinating cosmology emerges. Maffie’s book attempts to offer just such a portrait. Despite it often reading like a postgraduate thesis, with its highly structured format and dense linguistic derivations, Aztec Philosophy is the best introduction I have found to comprehending the hitherto incomprehensible world of these animistic pyramid builders. I’ve written a much longer essay outlining some of the book’s main ideas, primarily Maffie’s approach to taking certain concepts seriously. Previously terms like ‘teotl’ were explained in much vaguer ways, but the strength of the book is to confront them much as a student of Western philosophy would an idea like the Platonic Forms or the Kantian ‘Thing-In-Itself’, a complete idea, well thought out and grounded in philosophical and theological debate. In this way the Aztecs are presented as the intellectual equals of the great civilisations, which, even if you don’t agree, brings to life their worldview of change and motion in a way not seen before.
Chinese Cannibalism Books
One of my most popular articles this year was my breakdown of the long tradition of cannibalism in Chinese history - Cannibalism with Chinese Characteristics. I read many books for that piece, but two in particular stand out for their superlative content: Gang Yue’s ‘The Mouth That Begs: Hunger, Cannibalism and the Politics of Eating in Modern China’ and Zheng Yi’s Scarlet Memorial: Tales of Cannibalism in Modern China. I couldn’t decide between them so I thought I’d offer them both to my readers for their interest.
The novelist and Tiananmen Square veteran Zheng Yi wrote his book Scarlet Memorial while on a research trip to Wuxuan County, Guangxi in the late 1980’s. He was determined to discover whether the rumours of an outbreak of cannibalism during the excesses of the Cultural Revolution were true. Sadly what he found disturbed him enough to write this book. While it is meticulously researched and graphically described, Scarlet Memorial is ultimately too close to the action to yield any kind of sober reflection or explanation, instead this is a harrowing narrative of one of the worst series of massacres perhaps ever to have occurred, maybe anywhere. It is well worth reading and packed with information one is unlikely to find today under China’s strictly controlled archives, but as to why it happened, you’ll need to turn to other material.
This is where The Mouth That Begs is more useful. This work takes the symbolic and metaphorical act of eating in Chinese culture as the central theme, working through major literary figures such as Lu Xun, Zhang Xianliang, Liu Zhenyun and Mo Yan to uncover how food and eating have interacted with different political, ideological and cultural changes over time. What emerges is much richer description of Chinese cannibalism than in Scarlet Memorial, if less starkly gruesome. Personally I found both invaluable in trying to make sense of cannibalism in China, particularly in how novelists and writers have made great use of the taboo in describing events such as emergence of communism as a ‘cannibalistic’ force, feeding off the blood of the young.
Violence and the Sacred in the Ancient Near East: Girardian Conversation at Çatalhöyük
As recent readers will know, I am part way through my series on Neolithic Skull Cults in the Near East, a dense topic which has relied more on academic papers than books so far. One book that has been important though is this multi-author volume on Çatalhöyük, a Neolithic site in southern Anatolia of supreme importance to world archaeology. But while any decent book on Çatalhöyük would be interesting enough, what makes this work unique is the theoretical lens applied to the topic of violence and religion. René Girard has had something of a renaissance and perhaps some readers are familiar with his ideas, namely his concept of mimetic desire and the scapegoat mechanism of human violence and cohesion. In brief, humans do not desire things out of some individually managed impulse, rather every person imitates their neighbours and relatives in what they want, which leads to a convergence of desire on certain things. To avoid conflict, one member of the community is blamed for any instability and ritually killed as a scapegoat, which pacifies any need for escalation.
Using this framework, the authors of Violence and the Sacred attempt to explain the flourishing of Anatolian and Levantine Neolithic societies and their violence as a response to growing sedentism and social complexity, culminating in the institutionalisation of ritual aggression. Çatalhöyük is one of the few archaeological sites where such theoretical hypothesising could be done, thanks to the meticulous work of archaeologists over the years. This means that detailed approaches to taboo and prohibition can be actually be tackled (why are there no leopard bones anywhere in the settlement, but lots of leopard artwork? why was the interior space of the houses so thoroughly controlled and differentiated?). Ultimately while I don’t agree with everything in the book, I see this method of philosophical anthropology being matched up against the empirical evidence as both fruitful and interesting.
The Origin of AIDS - Jacques Pepin
A gripping account of how an ancient simian virus managed to jump the species barrier and make its way around the world. Pepin not only manages to make the science generally accessible, but also links together different social and political events in an authoritative and credible way. The story has a number of main plot points - French and Belgian colonial activity in the Congo region created dense concentrations of people who needed feeding and medical care, the use of bush meat and inoculation campaigns created the perfect conditions for the virus to enter the human population. Following rapid decolonisation there was an explosion in prostitution throughout Central Africa, particularly in the new slum-urban areas, which produced a circulating pool of hosts. The breakout came when the UN dispatched soldiers and administrators from around the world to help stabilise the floundering Congo when Belgium left. The Haitians who arrived then brought the virus back to their island upon return. Two new routes then appear - a disturbingly unregulated gay sex tourism industry from the United States to Haiti, and a cynically unsanitary plasma company, owned by a crony of the Duvalier regime, Luckner Cambronne. From here HIV then spreads around the world, through the four H’s: haemophiliacs, heroin addicts, homosexuals and Haitians. The sordid tales of plasma companies, returning infected blood to their donors was particularly heinous, and the numbers staggering, eg 250,000 people in rural China acquired HIV through paid plasma donation. Overall the book is a fascinating story in how different human activities create strange networks and vectors for disease - prostitution, inoculation, sex tourism, global governance, the plasma industry, migration, corruption and war.
Narco-Cults: Understanding the Use of Afro-Caribbean and Mexican Religious Cultures in the Drug Wars - Tony M. Kail
Anyone who reads this blog or follows me on Twitter knows that I enjoy reading and learning about modern religious cults and cultures, particularly the more outlandish in style. Narco-cults fit that bill perfectly, their strange, exotic beliefs and paraphernalia, their association with violence and ritual spectacles of decapitation and cannibalism, their ‘otherness’. I’ve always disliked the modern intellectual view of the world which says that humans are the same everywhere, are basically rational and ultimately act out of utilitarian calculations for profit and power. I think human nature is much weirder and darker than that, full of irrational impulses and energies. Narco-Cults is a book somewhere in the middle, ostensibly it seems written for the interested law enforcement officer or narco-crime specialist, attempting to break down the different religious landscapes of Central/South America and the Caribbean in order to tackle crime more effectively. But it’s also a plea to take them seriously, and not just as garish decorations on top of simple crime.
The book tackles a number of ‘narco-cults’, a relatively new term covering organised ritualistic behaviour intended to empower criminal organisations and people involved in drug trafficking and criminality. These include: Santería, Palo Mayombe, Narco-Saints such as Jesus Malverde, then Santa Muerte, Haitian Voodoo and the Christian cults of Saint Nazario and the Knight’s Templar. These range from opportunistic uses of pre-established syncretic religions to full-blown created-from-scratch criminal cults. There’s no doubt that much in here will appeal to any reader with a taste for the macabre, especially the terrifying Palo Mayombe skull-cauldrons, the ‘nganga’ and the resurrection of Aztec practices such as flaying enemies alive and eating them with tamales and sauce. But thankfully the author is sensitive to the reality that many of these cults are often benign in practice, such as the widespread Santa Muerte, and deserve to be understood on their own terms, both to avoid making enemies of ordinary citizens and to separate off the violent element from the mundane.
The Archaeology of China: From the Late Paleolithic to the Early Bronze Age - Li Liu & Xingcan Chen
Chinese archaeology can be something of an enigma, often seen from the outside as a series of claims - the first state, the oldest civilisation etc - but right down in the weeds of village excavations and stone tool analysis a much more interesting picture emerges. This comprehensive volume tackles the subject of Chinese origins in more detail than I have found anywhere else. The narrative thread is weak, but the story is nevertheless there, in amongst the maps and site plans. Personally I find the development of the Neolithic particularly interesting and how numerous cultures seem to bubble up, acquire some new domesticate, and then disappear again from history. Also how the emergence of a more connected Bronze Age Eurasia provided technological and human movement into China, spurring utterly novel proto-civilisations, like the Sanxingdui and their astonishing metalwork. Other important cities like Taosi and Erlitou make more sense in the light of patient excavations, and it is possible to link together documented people, like Emperor Yao and real archaeological remains, such as the astronomical developments recorded in the Wudibenji and Shang Su. If you have an amateur interest in Chinese prehistory, whether it be Neolithic shamanic ancestor worship or the domestication of different important cereals, this is definitely a book to have on the reference shelf.
Living Buddhas: The Self-Mummified Monks of Yamagata, Japan - Ken Jeremiah
In keeping with my views on a non-rational human nature, this unknown book could pose quite the shock to the average Darwinian bear. Self-mummification sounds like one of those insane but overblown practices from an Orientalist fever-dream. But in reality it was a very real phenomenon. The Japanese Buddhist sect of Shugendo aimed to create a sacred man through rigorous mountain asceticism, the ultimate goal being the process of ‘sokushin jobutsu’, to ‘become a Buddha in one’s human body’. The whole act takes around a decade to complete, the man being fully determined to rise beyond the mundane. Their diet firstly eliminates cereals, becoming a forager’s fare of nuts, roots and berries for a thousand days. Then for another thousand this meagre amount is reduced to bark, pine needles and resins. Copious amounts of Urushi tea was then consumed. This highly toxic drink would cause dehydration, vomiting, diarrhoea and introduce a kind of resinous lacquer into the body, which, combined with pine resins and needles, began the process of mummification while the person was still alive. In the final stages, the monk secluded himself in an underground chamber, meditating on death. A bamboo tube for air and a small bell were all that he required, to indicate to the others that he was alive. When death finally claimed him, the monks would seal the tomb and leave him for three years. A successful mummification was proof of his spiritual attainment and his body would be painted in lacquer and venerated forever in a nearby temple.
As an archaeologist I have a natural interest in the ways people preserve and live with their dead, and mummification in all its forms has to rank amongst the most curious and widespread human mortuary traditions. The book explores in great detail the natural and artificial ways of inducing mummification, and the various religious impulses which feed into the desire to preserve the human body against decomposition. The author possesses the kind of inquisitive and open scholarly mind required to explore how Japanese Buddhism came to pursue such an extreme practice as self-mummification, with all the enjoyable tangents worthy of a syncretic religion. If you are at all interested in mummification, Buddhism, religious cults or just fancy reading something completely alien to our current times, then I recommend you find a copy.
Accidents of an Antiquary’s Life - D.G Hogarth
Hogarth is not the household name that it should be in Britain, along with many other late imperial adventurers, scholars, explorers and soldiers. Born David George Hogarth in 1862, this unassuming young man read Classics at Oxford before becoming consumed by the unorthodox field of Macedonian history and Alexander the Great in particular. Hogarth wrote many books in his life, all of them worth reading, but Accidents appeals to me the most for his description and exploration into the mind of the antiquarian, a disposition we fail to nurture today amongst the young.
“Your true Antiquary is born, not made… Nevertheless, accident may make the Antiquary, as a good as another, out of anybody whose boyish education has given him some knowledge of the elder world. Let him be thrown, for example, much into lands whose ancient monuments conspicuously exalt the past at the expense of the present”
Hogarth then decided to follow in Alexander’s footsteps and travel in Asia Minor. He was accepted into the British School at Athens and between 1887-1907 wandered and excavated his way through Cyprus, Crete, Syria, Egypt, Melos and Ephesus, rounding it off with a horseback sojourn through Anatolia, making sketches of unknown ruins and reliefs. Accidents follows many of these exploits, although I would suggest reading more about his life. He is known for his work during WW1, especially for playing ‘kingmaker’ as the Director of the Arab Bureau and securing a position for an old friend, T.E Lawrence, who subsequently wrote of Hogarth “I owed him everything I had”.
Older travel journals and writings are a pleasure to read today, a voyage into a world where many more mysteries were to be found and people lived in greater isolation than today. A young Englishman making his way through markets, deserts, rural villages and port towns still manages to conjure up the romantic era of imperial adventure, and with his self-conscious reflections on how it affected his view on the world and the past, it comes together as a jewel of the genre.
Warfare in Neolithic Europe - Julian Maxwell Heath
The Neolithic period in Europe seems closely linked in the popular imagination with a kind of archaic, rustic idyll, a time of quiet change from the savagery of hunting and gathering to the sensible world of farms, fields and ploughs. Many have been left with the impression of a tranquil matriarchy-of-sorts, visions of the Mother Goddess, Old Europe, peaceful communal life and a semi-forested egalitarianism. Political writers of all stripes have made use of this romantic image to buttress their arguments, but it always fails to fit the facts. One reason of course is that Neolithic Europe, taken as a whole, was far from peaceful. While the elite class of warriors which we associate with the Bronze Age had not yet emerged, there is nonetheless plenty of disturbing evidence to show how violent the original agricultural age was.
Heath’s book is just about as perfect an introduction as one could hope for. Short, at 133 pages, including the bibliography, it still manages to present the full range of facts which archaeology has uncovered for the period spanning roughly 7000 - 2000 BC. Following the trail from the earliest farmers into Greece and the Balkans, we learn of skeletal injuries, fortified settlements and a massacre site in Romania (Lumea Noua), before heading off into the Linearbandkeramik (LBK) of Central Europe. The brutal, almost genocidal violence between 5700-4900 BC is on full display, with solid descriptions of Herxheim, Talheim, Asparn/Schletz and Schöneck-Kilianstädten. The book continues in this vein, covering France, Italy, Ireland, Britain, the Iberian Peninsula and the rise of the Corded Ware and Bell Beaker societies. While the latter is perhaps a bit cheeky to include in a book on Neolithic warfare, it turns out to be very useful to those interested in the major continental scale changes across the millennia, especially after the collapse of the LBK.
Heath also places this evidence alongside the anthropological literature on small-scale warfare amongst tribal societies, such as the Yanamami, Tahitians, Maori, Inuit and various Native American and New Guinean peoples. Personally I’m ambivalent on this - it is useful in one sense, making solid comparisons on weaponry, forms of violence and the communal structures which exacerbate and pacify aggression, but it also risks explaining away the European Neolithic as a sort of algorithm, where humans act out the same script when they reach a certain ‘level’ of social complexity. The Neolithic was a totally unique event in human history, the migration from another world of primitive farmers into a continent that had never seen agriculture, and was occupied by hunters and fishers who descended from the Ice Age mammoth peoples. They brought with them their own unique cosmologies and religions, which found their expression in megalithic circles and tombs, styles of architecture and artwork and ultimately in how they went to war with one another.
This is a fairly weak critique though, and more of a personal quibble. I think anyone interested in European prehistory should give it a read, there are details which will surprise even those who consider themselves well versed on the topic.
The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity - David Graeber & David Wengrow
Although I read this when it came out in 2021, I’ve since returned to it several times. I have long meant to write a full length review of the book, since it marks a big intervention in popular prehistory and political thought, but until I get around to it this will have to suffice.
The Dawn of Everything is really two books rolled into one, one of which I enjoyed, the other I did not. The first book is an important revision in how the standard ‘Harari’ style narrative of human history runs. Something like ‘small scale tribes → first farmers → small States → Civilisation’, seems to be how most people think of the past. The Dawn of Everything tackles this head on, describing what modern archaeology now knows about the deep time of human affairs. Hunter-gatherers are perfectly capable of large-scale complex societies, complete with hierarchies, slaves and long-term food storage. Early farmers did not instantly succumb to the might of the Leviathan State, but maintained their own ways of life for millennia. Foraging and farming are not mutually opposed, but instead many human groups developed mixed economies, combining seasonal agriculture with seasonal hunting. Exploring these myths is the most worthwhile part of the book, and it should be read for this alone in my opinion.
The second book is another beast altogether. Graeber was a well known anarchist, and the case the two authors try to attach to the evidence is a kind of ‘anarchist history of the world’, whereby human agency is almost unstoppable, and everyone wants to live in a horizontal, egalitarian society. They ask the question, ‘why are we not free today?’, and attempt to locate the origins of hierarchy, not in the Neolithic as many have supposed, but somewhere in the murky organisational changes that came with the Holocene. I would have to write a much longer piece to really challenge their thesis, but Graeber and Wengrow don’t really provide any convincing argument as to why humans often end up living in hierarchical and patriarchal societies. Amusingly they fall back on now-discredited theories about ‘primitive matriarchies’, contrasting the masculine highland headhunters of Gobekli Tepe, and the squishy, clay-working feminine farmers of Catalhoyuk. Comparisons like this permeate the book, from the ‘Protestant vs Catholic’ culture-zones of California and the Pacific Northwest, to the matriarchy/patriarchy theories of Marija Gimbutas. Again, their explanations for why humans choose to arrange themselves this way are less than compelling, since they seem determined to ignore the most basic of human impulses - fear and dislike of the other, the neighbour, the stranger.
The Dawn of Everything is worth reading, people will be arguing over its contents for many years and it will undoubtedly influence many younger students who will be heading into the academy soon enough. If you believe in the anarchist picture of human nature you will be elated by the book, if you do not, you will find yourself intrigued but dissatisfied.