National Geographic - Great Lost Civilisations Review

The old saw 'The enemy of my enemy is my friend' was never more true than in the case of the conquest of the Americas by the Spanish in the 16th century. Made between 2006 and 2008 these three documentaries set out, in revisionist vein, to cast new light on the accepted popular accounts of the indigenous societies of the time and their first encounters with and eventual conquest by the Spanish conquistadors. While also proving that the native societies were probably their own worst enemies and contributed to their ultimate extinction through collusion with the duplicitous Spaniards who ruthlessly exploited internal divisions amongst them. These documentaries deal variously with internecine strife amongst the Mayan elite, how Pizzarro managed to conquer the mighty Inca empire with just a few hundred troops, and finally, how a discredited Spanish account of great cities in the Amazon basin in the 1540s proves to be truer than anyone thought.

Each documentary takes the basic premise of using modern archaeological research to prove/disprove historic textual evidence. The format is the now-standard modern mix of documentary footage from location, talking head experts, mute re-enactments and a modest amount of cgi reconstructions, all knitted together by an authoritative voiceover and an intrusive musical score. Given that these three documentaries have been made under the umbrella title of National Geographic, a label normally associated with excellence, the results vary wildly in quality and watchability. Let's work from the worst to the best.

Royal Maya Massacre (50m 30s)
Practically unwatchable. This is supposed to be about sexual intrigue and untimely death amongst the Mayan elite but embodies the worst kind of modern documentary technique with its incessant repetition, quickfire editing, melodramatic tone, thundering score and lurid voiceover. The narration seems to have been written by a Heat copywriter and is over-delivered in the most clichéd Hollywood film trailer voiceover. Avoid.

Great Inca Rebellion (51m 55s)
This is much better. This kicks off with a recent archaeological dig of an Inca graveyard in the outskirts of Peru's capital city Lima. Of great interest to the Peruvian archaeologists are a number of skeletons buried in haste and which bear appalling battle wounds which they think relate to the Siege of Lima in the 1530s. Basically the mighty Inca empire, which ruled much of the Andes, was brought to its knees in 1532 by the illiterate adventurer Francisco Pizzarro and a few hundred soldiers. Five years later, the Inca tribes mounted a rebellion against Pizarro and besieged him in the then-new coastal settlement of Lima but, according to the Spanish accounts of the time, he successfully defeated them although vastly outnumbered. As we know history is always written by the winners and there are other contemporary documents that suggest Pizzarro had assistance from rebellious Inca factions but this has never been proved. Until now. Forensic examination of the remains of people believed to have participated in this battle show some to have received wounds from both Spanish and Inca weapons which back up the claims that the Spanish and Inca fought together against the rebels.

Secret Cities of the Amazon ( 50m 17s)
By far the best of the three documentaries. As with Great Inca Rebellion this uses contemporary archaeology to shed light on disputed 15th century texts regarding pre-Colombian life in South America. In this case, the accounts of Gaspar de Carvajal, a priest who, in 1542, accompanied a small Spanish expeditionary force along the length of the Amazon, conducted by Francesco de Orellana. This group began in the Andes and, unwittingly, ended up completing a 3600-mile, 8-month journey along the length of the river. Carvajal kept a journal and reported seeing large populous native towns, even cities, visible from the river and connected by wide roads of which there are no visible traces left in the present day.

These accounts, amongst others, fuelled the myth of El Dorado, The City of Gold that propelled many adventurers over the centuries to search out this lost wealth. The programme concentrates on one such adventurer, the Englishman Percy Fawcett who set off in the 1920s in search of the lost city of 'Z' - or 'Zee' as the narrator pronounces it, this being an American programme, after all. However, much doubt was cast on the 16th century accounts as the modern Amazon landscape is considered unable to support the level of cultivation required to feed the size of population that would have been necessary to fill these cities.

However, modern archaeological research is turning up evidence of ancient extensive settlement and sophisticated agricultural techniques which would have rendered the Amazon sufficiently fertile. In particular, traces have been found of a fertilised earth called terra preta that pre-Colombian people created over the centuries and the composition of which is unknown, even now, but could be, once successfully analysed, the key to making the Amazon basin fertile again. There is also evidence that existing small native villages were once much, much bigger and fortified in a manner described by Carvajal. There is also the matter of interpretation as it was assumed that the gleaming white cities that Carvajal described were made of dressed stone, as in the Aztec and Mayan cities to the North which misled many of the adventurers. However there is no stone to be had in the Amazon basin for construction but the new evidence that existing villages were once much bigger does lend itself to a new theory that Carvajal saw buildings made of wattle and daub, a known pre-Colombian building method. These would have been faced with dried white mud which would have given the distant impression, perhaps, to a European such as Carvajal, of gleaming stone buildings.

And finally the programme manages to include a modern eco-message by concentrating on one of the present-day Xingu villages and how the villagers' dependence on fish is being threatened by water pollution by pesticides. It was refreshing to see native peoples being presented in such a way as it wasn't too long ago (the 1970s and 80s) that the very same peoples would have been depicted in more sensationalist tone as 'Headhunters of the Amazon' or suchlike. It was also refreshing to see, for an American documentary, a franker uncensored depiction of the native people's physicality than the Discovery channel would allow, for example.

As already mentioned this is a mixed bag. Of the three docs I much preferred the Secret Cities of the Amazon which, despite the Boys' Own style title was the most intelligent and adult-friendly of the three. The reconstructions were well-done and the CGI work was restrained and illustrative. The voiceover (provided by Peter Coyote) was, for a change, well-modulated and not intrusive. Of the other two, Great Inca Rebellion was watchable but Royal Maya Massacre was as lurid as the title suggests.


All three documentaries are presented in anamorphic widescreen in 1.85:1 ratio. The picture is pretty good as you would expect from something made only a few years ago but I suspect these are PAL copies from NTSC originals. There is a slight fuzziness to the image and a bit of smearing on moving objects. However on a smaller screen they look OK.


Clean and clear 2-channel stereo. Most of the South American contributors are dubbed rather than subtitled but the mix is well-balanced with the omnipresent musical score not dominating.


None at all apart from the optional English subtitles. These are fairly precise transcriptions though which is not always the case.

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