The Americas and Civilization

Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975), Echelon Discs, 1935, Padouk Wood, 311 x 491 x 225mm


Considerations on the book by Darcy Ribeiro

The Americas and Civilization it was the second in a series of studies on the “anthropology of civilizations” carried out by Darcy Ribeiro during his exile. It is, according to the author himself, the most important book in the series, as it directly addresses the theme that motivated it: the causes of the uneven development of the American peoples.

Written in 1967 and updated ten years later, The Americas and Civilization completely out of line with what is practiced today in anthropology. The mismatch is evident both in the agenda of contents – the formation and evolutionary process of civilizations – and in the claim to make this discipline a comprehensive science, endowed with the capacity to unify all of the human sciences.

The book is certainly inspired by the model, in vogue at the time, of the broad historical-cultural panoramas of American neo-evolutionary anthropology. It proposes, however, to submit these theories to a “critical review”, contesting the naturalness with which they present the process of human development, as well as the Eurocentric bias that guides them. Task performed with the help of Marxism, incorporated in a heterodox perspective, and the first “dependence theory”, that of André Gunder Frank.

The Americas and Civilization it can be described as a kind of missing link between the pioneering studies of Gunder Frank and current work on the geopolitics of the world system. Giovanni Arrighi and Immanuel Wallerstein favor monitoring the accumulation process, in the Braudelian key of “long duration”. José Luís Fiori, following in the footsteps of Maria da Conceição Tavares, highlighted the pair “power and money” and more recently the role of wars between nations. Darcy Ribeiro, before them, sought to understand the inequality of nations as a result of the delay in civilizing processes.

The book does not shy away from presenting a global theory of historical development, deployed in a scheme that classifies societies according to their stage in sociocultural evolution. The typology adopts the “adaptive system” as an axis, that is, the way in which each society “acts on nature in an effort to provide for its subsistence and reproduce the set of goods and equipment available to it”. To this is connected an “associative system” (the set of norms and institutions of social life) and an “ideological system” (composed of knowledge, beliefs and values). The stages of comparison thus correspond to the triggering of successive technological revolutions: agricultural, urban, irrigation, metallurgical, pastoral, mercantile, industrial and thermonuclear.

The precariousness and vulnerability of this evolutionary scheme are, however, counterbalanced by the richness of the material used in the composition of the book. Darcy mobilized the most diverse sources: ethnographic, archaeological, historical, economic, political, sociological, etc. The concept that brings together the ordering of contents is that of “peoples”. These are understood not so much as a determination (or as intersections) ethnic or cultural, but as a result of the interpenetration of societies with different civilizational stages.

The interpenetration of cultures resulting from European expansion would have formed three types of people in America. “Witness peoples” are the modern descendants of the Aztec, Maya and Inca autonomous civilizations: the Mexicans, Guatemalans, Bolivians, Peruvians, etc. The “new peoples” derive from the coming together, in the colonial enterprise, of whites, blacks and Indians, a predominant situation in Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, the Antilles, etc. The “transplanted peoples” correspond to the modern nations created by the migration of European populations: Canada, United States, Uruguay and Argentina.

This typology seeks to map the different degrees of incorporation into the ways of life of the mercantile revolution and industrial civilization. It provides important clues, although not always decisive ones, for understanding crucial issues in American history such as the meaning of colonization, the breakdown of the Spanish empire into a diversity of nations and the causes of inequality in development patterns.

If some parts of the book, such as the exposition of its conceptual framework, have aged, the ideal that animates it, a science committed to overcoming historical gaps, remains more current than ever.

*Ricardo Musse He is a professor at the Department of Sociology at USP. He edited, among other books, Contemporary China: Six Interpretations (authentic).

Originally published in the newspaper Folha de S. Paul, notebook more!, in April 2007.



Darcy Ribeiro. The Americas and Civilization. São Paulo, Companhia das Letras. 528 pages.


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