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"Engineering an Empire" The Aztecs (2006)

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A City on a Lake.

Author: Robert J. Maxwell ( from Deming, New Mexico, USA
14 March 2010

*** This review may contain spoilers ***

One of the more interesting episodes because it covers a civilization few Westerners are very familiar with.

The Aztecs ruled Central Mexico at about the time Michelangelo was carving "David." They had a flourishing civilization with its capital on an island in a lake that is now under Mexico City. I mean, it was one of several regular cities, with traffic, streets, distinctive architecture, market places with bins full of beans, squash, peppers, and other food stuffs -- and all built without animals that could be ridden or hitched to wagons, and without wheels.

Farming was done on artificial islands made of reeds tied together and covered with soil. That's pretty clever. The Aran Islanders of Ireland did something similar with seaweed on rocks.

The history of the Aztecs and the surrounding tribes is bound to remind a viewer of that of the city states of Ancient Greece, with first Athens dominating the area, then Sparta, and all the poleis in conflict with one another. The Aztecs were the last tribe to establish hegemony over a large area. Any further development was interrupted by the Spaniards.

Our knowing something of Mesoamerica is probably a good idea, adding to our data base. Right now, most Americans probably don't know much more than that the border cities are dangerous places because of drug wars. Or, for some of us, there may be familiar ritzy hotels in Mexico City.

The Mexicans have their own technological and sociopolitical history and they can be proud of it. The Aztec influence reached as far as California. In Mexico City's Museo de Anthropologico, there is a small display illustrating the physical evolution of humans. We have many similar displays and charts in America. But their cave men don't end up at the end of the series looking like tall, blond subway-riding New Yorkers. They look like shorter, darker, robustly built Mexican bus riders.

A friend of mine was taking his oral exams for a doctorate in anthropology and one of the questions he was asked was, "Describe the distribution of highways in the preindustrial world." He hemmed and hawed and managed to come up with the Via Apia of the Romans and the rope bridges of the Inca. He missed the Aztecs, but he wouldn't have, if he'd seen this episode.

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