Lost Chronicles of the Maya Kings

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9780297816997: Lost Chronicles of the Maya Kings
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Over the last two centuries explorers have made the most remarkable discoveries in the tropical forests of Central America. Across much of present-day Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras dozens of cities - some with populations of well over 100,000 - have been unveiled, and every year fresh reports emerge of the findings of unknown Maya ruins - great temples, palaces, towering stone pyramids and the tombs of the Maya kings. What these spectacular discoveries indicate is the former presence of an exceptionally advanced, sophisticated and complex society. Recently, major developments made in the decipherment of Maya hieroglyphics have revealed that alongside the material achievements of the Maya ran intellectual accomplishments in astronomy, maths and calendrics, seemingly tied to the complexities of Maya religion, that were remarkable for a society technically in the Stone Age. From reliefs on temple walls, from magnificent hieroglyphic stairways and from stone stelae planted by Maya rulers in the plazas of their cities has come written history: the Chronicles of the Maya Kings. In this fascinating book, David Drew brings to life this extraordinary civilisation. He answers questions about why they constructed their cities in the hostile setting of the jungle, the exact age of their ruins, the strange human images depicted in elaborate costume at so many Maya sites, and he asks why at the time of the Spanish conquest, all knowledge of the Mayas had been lost. He looks at their history, art, architecture, political systems, religion, and, finding that the Maya are not in fact a lost or dead people - there are still five million descendants living in Mexico - considers the ways in which their society today illuminates that of their ancestors.

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Review:

Much has been learned in recent years, through archaeological excavations and the decipherment of hieroglyphs, about the world of the ancient Maya peoples of Mesoamerica. But an important question continues to engage scholars: why did their powerful empire, extending from southern Mexico to Nicaragua, collapse so swiftly and completely, hundreds of years before the European arrival brought other New World empires to ruin? Popular-archaeology writer David Drew examines the existing evidence and the sometimes contentious scholarly literature in The Lost Chronicles of the Maya Kings, a well-crafted portrait of the Mayan world, in which religious orthodoxy, constant warfare, and political struggle held sway as leaders such as Smoking Frog, Shield Skull, and Flint Sky battled for supremacy.

Drew shows that there were really two Mayan empires: an "international one" verging on the Toltec and Mexica lands to the north, and an isolationist, conservative one to the south. Both constructed impressive, crowded cities marked by monumental architecture and elaborate royal tombs. Both fell victim to overpopulation and environmental failure, as drought and the depletion of the soil combined to produce famine. With them came the abandonment of the great cities. "It must be a gauge of the catastrophe and the severity of damage to the environment that in the years to come no attempt was made to revive a single one of them," Drew writes. The Mayan civilization emerged anew after the collapse, if at a much less ambitious scale--only to fall again as European-introduced diseases killed half a million Mayas between 1520 and 1547.

Drew's account of the Mayan empire's rise and fall is among the best general-interest books on this enigmatic era of New World history; scholars may prefer Martin and Grube's Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens. --Gregory McNamee

About the Author:

David Drew writes and presents television documentaries (including series such as Chronicles, Footsteps and Timewatch). He is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and the Royal Anthropological Institute. This is his first book.

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