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TV Review: Nova – “The Great Inca Rebellion”

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Though it seems like a natural, this Tuesday marks the first collaboration between Nova and National Geographic Television. The material, entitled "The Great Inca Rebellion," focuses on new discoveries and revelations about the Spanish conquest of the Incas. It is certainly a worthy topic for these two heavyweights to tackle together.

As the documentary states, for years the accepted version of the Incas' devastating defeat by the Spanish focused on horses, steel, and germs. The commonly accepted view is that due to the horses and steel of the Spanish conquistadors, the Incan army was no match for the Spanish. Then, as the Incas came into more contact with the Spanish, they fell ill and died due to diseases carried by the Spanish. In short, it is because the Spanish wore more advanced and somewhat lucky.

Now, however, a new theory has emerged. There are some historians, archaeologists, and assorted other scientists who are piecing together a different version of the events. They believe that while it is true that horses, steel, and germs helped the Spanish, that a deciding factor in these battles was in fact the enlistment of other native tribes to battle against the Incas.

Nova begins this story by talking to Peruvian archaeologist Guillermo Cock. Cock, who has for a long time been provided grants by National Geographic, discovered an old Incan burial ground on the outskirts of Lima. While some of the graves there are traditionally Incan in nature, nearly 70 others, which sit on top of the Incan graves, are not. They may contain Incas and other natives of the region, but they are buried haphazardly, not in the methodical Incan style. The bodies also contain crushing blows to the skull and numerous broken bones.

After bringing in experts, it was determined that at least one of these bodies contains a bullet wound, one that is consistent with what would be produced by the Spanish guns of the era. That, along with other evidence, helps Cock and his team place the site as the first one that contained bodies from the same time period as the Inca Rebellion in Lima.

Once the narrative of the documentary gets this far,it takes a strong left turn and becomes almost something else entirely. Two separate historians, without the aid of the grave site, have already started putting together a different view of the Spanish conquest than the traditionally accepted European one, one in which other Indian tribes played a huge role in vanquishing the Incas. These historians recount how Francisco Pizarro's concubine was an Indian and how the Inca Rebellion in Lima was not put down due to a heroic charge on a part of the Spanish cavalry, but rather by the concubine having written to her mother, a tribal chief, that sent an army to help Pizarro.

The story of the cemetery and the Inca Rebellion are told with great style and it is clear that a lot of care went into constructing all the visual images. The various tales told within the single documentary are fascinating as well, but, as presented, they do not mesh as smoothly as they ought. They should work together perfectly as they are two halves of the same whole, but very little effort seems to have been put into having these two stories flow from one into the next. It's sad, because the rest of the documentary is put together well.

The historians interviewed have clearly been formulating their beliefs for longer than this new cemetery has been known to exist, yet the episode makes little mention of this. The cemetery supports the historians' already existing beliefs, rather than helping the historians formulate them. Additionally, the historians make no mention of the grave site. It seems completely and totally beside the point to them, which aids in the disjointed feel of the program.

Despite this weakness, the episode is an engrossing look at the historic realities of the Spanish conquest of the Incan Empire (which was, as the episode reminds us, in decline when Pizarro arrived). While the cemetery is clearly the impetus for the episode, the more fascinating aspects of the historical reality, the second half of the episode, is the more interesting half.

Nova – "The Great Inca Rebellion" airs on PBS, Tuesday, June 26 at 8pm. However, it's always best to check your local listings rather than just taking my word for it.

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About Josh Lasser

Josh has deftly segued from a life of being pre-med to film school to television production to writing about the media in general. And by 'deftly' he means with agonizing second thoughts and the formation of an ulcer.
  • http://tvandfilmguy.blogspot.com Josh Lasser “TV and Film Guy”

    Congratulations! This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net, which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States.

  • bliffle

    Good review.

  • http://tvandfilmguy.blogspot.com Josh Lasser “TV and Film Guy”

    Thank you!

  • brad

    good review but I want to throw a little light on the subject of the use of the word “Incan” in the show which is my pet peeve. First, the cemetery is not an Inca cemetery. The Inka are small group from Cuzco who conquered many other groups in the andes in building their empire. The Puruchuco cemetery is a cemetery of a local group with a distinct local burial tradition. That the producers use of the adjective Incan for everything in the show is just sloppy. Note that none of the researchers ever used the term, only the narrator. It is perhaps fair to call it the Inca period, although it actually the spanish colonial period at this point, but calling all people in the andes at the time of context is akin to calling all the Indians in british colonial India british. Other than that I thought the show was well produced, and your comments about the lack of integration well put.

  • Mauricio Escobedo

    Although, as Mr. Lasser noted, the program “The Great Incs Rebellion” should have been remembered for documenting the first gunshot wound of the Americas, I believe that instead it will ultimately be remembered for its scholastic dishonesty in the face of a general American Culture bent on revising history (particularly historical accounts by Christians). I am not against revising history when the facts warrant it. But this program is almost comical in its proposition that an archeological find revealed facts that were not previously known. The idea that Pizarro had an Indian concubine who saved the day is familiar to anyone who has actually studied the conquest of the Americas written by priests (called scribes by Townsend/Nova/PBS’ religiously secular program). Does “La Malinche” ring a bell to Townsend or any NOVA scholars? Didn’t the dishonest Spanish Chroniclers reveal to us the important role that an indigenous woman had in the conquest of Mexico? Didn’t most of the Spaniards follow much the same pattern in the conquest of all the Americas? This very biased Townsend/NOVA/PBS program never really analyzed why the Spaniards found so many willing allies (if the Spaniards were so evil) among the indigenous peoples. Could it be that the cruelty and cannibalism of the Incas, the Aztecs (Mexicas) and other Imperialistic tribes compelled other Indians to join the Spaniards? What does that tell us about the evil Spaniards (that they actually played a liberating role)? As for the dishonest Spanish Chroniclers: who told us that the Spaniards used other indigenous tribes as allies? The dishonest Spanish Chroniclers. Who told us that there was a siege at Lima? The dishonest Spanish Chroniclers. Who told us that cavalry charges were NOT the single greatest reason for the Spaniards’ military victories? The dishonest Spanish Chroniclers. Who recorded the eyewitness accounts of the Indians who were present at the siege of Lima? The dishonest Spanish Chroniclers. You know, for being dishonest, they sure did tell us a lot. It appears that Townsend/Nova/PBS (and National Geographic) have never read any Greek, Roman, Assyrian, Egyptian or Babylonian Chronicles. The Spaniards were paragons of honesty in comparison. By the way, none of the facts that were uncovered negate the Spanish version of the facts. Though more credit was given to the Spaniards than Townsend/NOVA/PBS wanted, nothing in the Spanish account precluded assistance from other indigenous tribes at the siege of Lima: PARTICULARLY WHEN THIS FACT WAS A GIVEN THROUGHOUT ALL OF THE SPANISH CONQUEST ACCOUNTS. Bernal Diaz del Castillo (an eyewitness to the conquest of Mexico) and other Spanish Chroniclers NEVER hide the fact that the Spaniards depended on indigenous tribes for intelligence, logistical support, translation and even food.

  • http://blogcritics.org/video/article/tv-review-nova-the-great-inca/page-2/ nena

    this article is so great!!! It helps to understand what really went on in the rebellion of the Incas. was very helpful for my assignment.