Academic reviewers have ranged from savagery to studied politeness in attempting to deal with Burr Cartwright Brundage’s writings on Inca and Aztec history. Part of the trouble is a lack of definition of genres within this important field. Because of its perennial interest to a wide public, its location at the border of anthropology and history, and the great difficulties of its sources, the history of Indians in the late preconquest period is still a no-man’s-land, roamed by scholars and popularizers alike. Essentially Two Earths, Two Heavens is written in a popular vein. There is no reason for me or anyone else to decry the decent human activity of semi-scholarly writing. The need is only for proper identification.
Against the background of his previous books of narrative about the Incas and Aztecs, Brundage briefly draws comparisons and contrasts between the two great empires, covering the salient topics of origins, processes of formation and expansion, organization, conceptual and religious aspects, and ultimate fate. The prose is leisurely, reflective, mainly pleasant; at times, alas, it overreaches for literary effect. There are not a few unintentionally hilarious sentences.
Since the field is not well differentiated, Brundage is not entirely the popularizer. Rather the topics are ones of current scholarly interest, barely explored or highly controversial. Brundage is dealing seriously with them himself, originally, on the basis of the knowledge available to him. Given his premises, his conclusions are at times cogent.
The analysis proceeds, however, under two serious handicaps. First, Brundage focuses on the Mexica and the Incas in the narrower sense, as individual peoples, rather than seeing them as, in many ways, characteristic products of the respective culture areas, Meso-american and Andean. Second and even more seriously, Brundage here, as in his other work, draws uncritically and one-sidedly upon the post-conquest “chronicles” as a source of information. To do so is to write fairy tales. Moreover, a new type of scholarship using a broader documentation has begun to enrich and change the chronicles’ picture of the social and political organization of the empire peoples. Such work shows far more local autonomy and regional distinctiveness in the Andean region than is compatible with the concept of a monolithic Inca empire. Unexpected new similarities between the two empires are thus emerging just at the time when Brundage is heightening the contrasts, predicated upon the chronicles’ idealized notions.
At the end of the book, the author proclaims that an explanation for the differences between Incas and Aztecs will never be found. But our duty is to give what explanations we can. Among other things, it is imperative to look to social organization and environment. The greater urbanization and nucleation of much of Mesoamerica meant that provinces there were better demarcated and more self-assertive than those in the Andes. The extremity of the Andean environment led groups to try to gain a foothold in several microclimates at once, leading in turn to stronger traditions of rotary labor and colonization than in Mesoamerica. Only when we have exhausted analysis in modes untouched by Brundage will we be justified in relishing the remaining mystery.
This is a book that a general reader with a taste for travel and the exotic might well enjoy. Persons with an intellectual interest in the comparison of the Aztec and Inca empires would be better advised to go directly to Friedrich Katz’s The Ancient American Civilisations, with its far higher level of synthesis and analysis, and then read the recent works of those scholars whose investigations are transforming the very basis of comparison: John Murra, R. T. Zuidema, Åke Wedin, Pedro Carrasco, and others.