Engineering an Empire: Season 1, Episode 5

The Maya: Death Empire (13 Nov. 2006)

TV Episode  -  Documentary | History
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Disappearing Act.
16 March 2010 | by (Deming, New Mexico, USA) – See all my reviews

I wonder who dreams up the overly dramatic titles for these episodes. "Maya: The Death Empire." It belongs in the same category as "Britain: Blood and Steel" and "Napoleon: Steel Monster." The Mayans don't need that kind of hype. They were a pretty sharp civilization -- not the earliest in Mesoamerica but one of the most admirable. They built gigantic ziggurats some twenty stories high. They were astronomers and possibly philosophers. They didn't have the wheel or pack animals to help them either. They invented the zero, which made higher math possible and was only invented three times independently in human history. They predicted the orbit of Venus. They predicted eclipses.

Peter Weller, actor and academic, makes an occasional appearance, like a host mingling at a party, and leads us down into tombs forgotten until 1949.

The Maya were a mysterious bunch though. Their city states flourished before the better-known Aztecs, beginning in and around the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico, near the Guatamala border, about the time Rome was falling apart. Their capital city was Palenque.

Palenque collapsed and the Mayans move north and established a new empire, in some ways more spectacular than the old one, centered around Chitchen Itza. Then that imploded too. The film tells us that the reasons for both disappearances remain a mystery, but we learned in school that the main reason was slash and burn agriculture, a farming technique that destroys forests and exhausts the soil in a few generations. You can't have a major population center without farms nearby to support all those craft specialists -- those aristocrats, royal families, technicians, priests, venders, laborers, stock brokers, restaurateurs, turkey traders, politicians, late-night comedians, and astronomers, who don't do any farming themselves.

I always kind of liked the Mayans, never knowing much about them. They seemed to be to the Aztecs as the Greeks were to the Romans. The earlier civilizations in both cases seemed relatively restricted in their colonial ambitions and were given to discoveries, whereas the later civilizations were relatively technical, military, and had expansionist aims.

It's impossible to know for certain why the Mayans are called "the death empire" in this series. Maybe because their civilization simply died without ever being conquered or without leaving any other obvious explanation behind. Most of their written history was destroyed and digs are still being carried out. We ought to know more in a generation or two.


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