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"An Important Work on Civilization"
A review by Carroll Quigley in The Washington Sunday Star, June 29, 1969,
of a book.
by Darcy Ribeiro
Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1969.


"An Important Work on Civilization"


Washington Sunday Star
June 29, 1969

An Important Work on Civilization

By Darcy Ribeiro
Translated, with a foreword by Betty J. Meggers.
Smithsonian Institution Press. 201 pages. $6.50.



   This is an unusual book by a very unusual man. The author, a Brazilian anthropologist who has lived among South America's most primitive jungle tribes, organized the Museum of the Indians in Rio de Janeiro, became professor of anthropology at the University of Brazil in 1956, at the age of 34, and was one of the chief planners of the new University of Brazilia, of which he became the first rector in 1961. He was chief of the division of social Research in the Brazilian Ministry of Education in 1958-1961 and minister of education and culture in the Goulart government in 1962-1964. When Goulart was overthrown by a military coup in 1964, many of his government, including Ribeiro, were exiled. Late in 1968, Ribeiro returned to Brazil, was arrested, and is now in prison.

   Ribeiro is far more than a social scientist and politician. From the evidence of this book, he is also a widely read and obviously cultured man, with a remarkable knowledge of history, and a clear and orderly mind. In this volume he presents a remarkable history of mankind over the past 12,000 years in the brief compass of only 150 pages. Such concision requires profound knowledge of a subject. Ribeiro has such knowledge, far beyond that of the majority of academic historians in our country today. He has a deep understanding of the problems and processes of history, a remarkable knowledge of historical and sociological literature (in at least five languages), and an unusual capacity for organization and exposition of his subject. The result is a world history which has something significant to say on almost every page, even to professional historians. The volume concludes with a bibliography of 45 pages.

Sequence of Civilizations

   In a book I published in 1961, I considered the subject in terms of a sequence of different civilizations as discrete entities, as, indeed, they are. Ribeiro attacks the subject as a single "civilizational process" to which each of the various civilizations has contributed its own distinctive elements.

   He divides this whole process into a sequence of technological revolutions, eight in all, thus showing the influence of Marx in his outlook. The Ribeiro approach is valid and illuminating, although the only serious adverse criticism I would make of this book would be aimed at the almost inevitable narrowing of outlook which accompanies too much Marxist influence in any social scientist's point of view.

   My own decision to deal with man's civilized history as a sequence of separate civilizations was based, in part, on a conviction that organizational and intellectual factors were at least as important as technological and economic forces in determining the history of any civilization, and that the ability of such a civilization to utilize the technical knowledge available to it, either from its own invention or from diffusion from other cultures, depends, to a great extent, on non-materialist factors, especially those associated with accepted outlook and organizational patterns.

   The eight stages which Ribeiro discerns in the "civilizational process" are: (1) the Neolithic Revolution (which he calls "The Agricultural Revolution"); (2) the "Urban Revolution"; (3) the "Irrigation Revolution"; (4) the "Metallurgical Revolution"; (5) the "Pastoral Revolution"; (6) the "Mercantile" Revolution"; (7) the "Industrial Revolution"; and (8) the "Thermonuclear Revolution." These stages may seem obvious enough to most persons with some knowledge of history, but Ribeiro's particular point of view, derived, in part, from his anthropological background, and also his position as a citizen of an underdeveloped nation, has given him special insights.

Widening the Stage

   For example, Ribeiro quite correctly, emphasizes the different experiences of the civilizational process in what I called "core" areas from that undergone in "peripheral" areas of each civilization. He sees this distinction at work not only in the commercial intercourse of the earliest irrigation civilizations but also in the difference between "advanced" and "backward" areas during the centuries of the mercantile, industrial and thermonuclear revolutions.

   This widening of the stage of history, to include, for example, the impact of Iberian, Russian, English and French expansion from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries on American Indians or African Negroes, as well as on the peoples of the Oceanic islands and of Asia, is now being examined by historians, but to Ribeiro it has been fully incorporated as a significant aspect of the historic process. In fact, he makes a valuable distinction between "backward" and "underdeveloped" peoples on the valid ground that the latter have already made adaptations to the impact of advanced peoples while the former have not.

   Another significant example of Ribiero's broad point of view is his recognition that Russian expansion across Asia to North America ran parallel to the Iberian expansion across the seas in the centuries following 1480 and that the parallel applied to the organizational nature of the two systems, so that both may be classified as "Salvationistic Mercantile Empires."

   There are numerous places in this brief work where the reader might raise a quizzical eyebrow or even want to contradict the author's statements, but there is no need to point out such cases here, for the overall value of this book is too great to be the subject of petty criticism in a first appraisal. It might be added that the smooth and clear translation by Betty Meggers of the Smithsonian does much to make the volume accessible to readers of the English language.




Scan of original review



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