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Customer Review

45 of 46 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars De-mystifying the Maya, July 17, 2008
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This review is from: Ancient Maya: The Rise and Fall of a Rainforest Civilization (Case Studies in Early Societies) (Paperback)
Reading a carefully researched, painstakingly compiled academic book is always a pleasure for me. As a former academic myself, I know what it takes---the hours, the millions of details, the checking and cross-checking of facts, the gathering of bibliography and weighing the arguments of all the authors, the mental absorption of months and years. You can never get free until it's done. So, when I find a fine book like ANCIENT MAYA, I'm always glad, but I hold a respectful admiration as well. OK, so Demarest's work may not read like some best seller or pop history. If you don't like references scattered thickly on every page, you won't like his book. You've got to get the sequence of Maya culture's stages [archaic, early preclassic, middle preclassic, late preclassic, classic, postclassic, colonial, modern] firmly in mind in order to follow a lot of the text, and if you don't want to be consulting the maps (good ones) every five minutes, it would be good to have some idea of the geography of the region too. It's not bedtime reading, but if you are interested in a wonderful overview of Maya civilization, you've come to the right place.

The first five chapters don't really discuss the Maya, but "how we know what we know" and "theories about the practice of archaeology" if I may put it like that. The reader gets a crash course in the history of Maya archaeology, various weird theories that have been propagated over the years, modern archaeological techniques, and the beginnings of Maya civilization as dimly perceived through archaeology. The description of Classic Maya society begins with chapter six, on agriculture and ecology. Many of the "old chestnut" theories about the Maya are put to rest here. Drought and erosion were not major causes of the "collapse" of Maya classic culture. The Maya secret was to know how to build an advanced civilization in a rain forest environment. In short, they used techniques that mimicked the diversity and dispersion of species in a rain forest. They used many styles of agriculture, no one predominating. The subsequent chapters deal with the overall economy, ideology and power, the political units and history, and the idea of "collapse". There wasn't a real collapse....it was more a transition to other types of society after a period of intensive wars and overpopulation. He calls this period a "rapid decline in complexity". Actually in some parts of the Maya world, new, vibrant political units sprang up after the end of Classic Maya times.

You can learn in great detail about Maya agriculture, trade, statecraft, religion and ritual, mathematics and astronomy, and the glyphs from which we have learned so much about them. You will encounter interesting sketches, photos, and charts. In short, ANCIENT MAYA is a compendium of modern knowledge about that fascinating ancient civilization. I will not tell you it's easy reading, but it's probably the best book on the subject these days.
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Nov 15, 2014 10:35:36 AM PST
My knowledge of the Ancient Mayan Civilization is what I have seen in documentaries and shows on Discovery and NatGeo. Would you recommend this book to me, or is there a better starting point out there for someone like me? I want to learn more about the Mayans, but I am not sure where to start to get the foundations, if you will.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 17, 2014 3:15:34 PM PST
Bob Newman says:
Amanda,
I am not very knowledgeable about all the books available on the subject today. I read a few books that were printed some time ago, but not many of the current or recent ones. So, probably I am not the one to answer this question very well. If you live in or near a town where they have interlibrary loan service, I recommend you get this one. In the bibliography he has a huge number of other books. You might select from that. Or, you could check some other books that appear on Amazon. I said that "it's probably the best book" etc. on the basis of its wide range and erudite presentation, not because I was familiar with all the rest.
Thanks for writing.
Bob
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