When Europeans first came to the New World, what we now know as Central America had been home to a number of rich and sophisticated cultures, such as the Aztecs of central Mexico, the Zapotecs who flourished in what is now Oaxaca, and the Teotihuacans and Olmecs, who predated both.
Unfortunately, the introduction of new diseases and the conquistadors’ focus on, well, conquest, did not leave much opportunity for cultural exchange, and subsequent centuries of colonisation have seen a lot of knowledge about these civilisations lost. But dedicated archaeologists, anthropologists and researchers are diligently trying to make up for that, as two new documentaries on SBS On Demand (plus another coming to SBS this month) can attest.
The three-part series Maya: Ancient Metropolis paints a compelling picture of Mesoamerica as a collection of highly urbanised societies by looking at three of Central America’s great pre-Columbian cities: the Mayan settlements of Chichen Itza and Tikal, and the Aztec stronghold of Teotihuacan.
Meanwhile, Lost Treasures of the Maya looks at how modern archaeologists use cutting-edge technology to uncover Mayan cities that have been reclaimed by the jungle in the years since European invasion.
Lost Treasures of the Maya
For those whose notions of archaeology have been informed by the likes of Indiana Jones and Lara Croft, Lost Treasures of the Maya will feel very familiar. We even have a (somewhat) swashbuckling hero in the form of host Albert Lin, an explorer and engineer for National Geographic.
Lin’s passion for technology is apparent as he guides us through how ancient cities can be explored through techniques such as LiDAR: Light Detection And Ranging, which uses precise lasers to penetrate dense vegetation and find the manmade stonework beneath. But Lin is also more than willing to get down on the ground, hacking his way through miles of overgrown greenery to get to the lost city in question (that he does so on a titanium artificial leg is quite sobering for an armchair archaeologist).
Lost Treasures of the Maya is now streaming at SBS On Demand.
Maya: Ancient Metropolis
The jungle of pre-Columbian Central America was dotted with populous settlements. The Mayans in particular were avid city builders, as Maya: Ancient Metropolis shows. The first episode is a deep dive into Chichen Itza, both figuratively and literally.
Located on the Yucatan Peninsula in eastern Mexico and as large as contemporary Paris at its height, Chichen Itza was built over a system of large, water-filled sinkholes or cenotes that provided the city with both drinking water and a focus for their religious activities: precious objects and humans alike were sunk into the depths as offerings to the gods.
Indeed, it’s difficult to look at Mesoamerican culture and not have to consider their devout and, to our eyes, bloody religion. Maya: Ancient Metropolis makes the case that Mayan architectural ingenuity and their devotion to their religion were inextricably entwined: the construction of great temples and pyramids, all achieved with no beasts of burden, was an expression of political will, economic power and religious fervour all at once. In a very real way – real to the Mayans at least, according to their worldview – whole cities could be said to exist just to perpetuate a continuous supply of human sacrifices for the gods, who needed to be fed and appeased to ensure the continuation of the physical world. From that angle, being selected for sacrifice was considered a great honour, and at one point it’s observed that Chichen Itza could be viewed as “…a machine designed to make the world go.”
It’s still a challenge for modern scholars to reconcile the ingenuity and the bloodthirstiness of Mayan culture, but perhaps that’s a big part of why we find Mesoamerica so fascinating. As both documentary projects show, the process of investigation is a painstaking and ongoing one, but each new discovery is like a gift from the gods.
For those especially interested in Mayan history, the documentary Lost Treasure Tombs of the Ancient Maya screens at 8.30pm, Sunday 13 February on SBS, following archeologists as they search for clues on how the Maya lived and why they abandoned their cities.