"the mighty builders, perished and fallen"
September 6, 2020 1:06 PM   Subscribe

Excellent. Thank you!
posted by carter at 2:22 PM on September 6

I just discovered these myself! I've watched/listened to the ones that have been turned into full videos for YouTube, and they're very good. Cooper's storytelling and narration is soothing in a way that I need very badly right now.

The episode on Easter Island was especially interesting to me, as I'd previously only heard the version popularized by Jared Diamond that attributed the collapse of the Rapa Nui civilization to deforestation and environmental catastrophe caused by the Rapa Nui themselves. Cooper does a really good job of refuting this version of history, and identifying much more likely factors. (Spoiler: colonialism and genocide.) If someone was only going to check out one episode, I'd recommend that one, but they're all good. I also really appreciated the episode on the Khmer Empire for giving me a better toehold into the history of a region and period that my education really failed to give me.
posted by biogeo at 3:34 PM on September 6 [6 favorites]

I had been listening to the audio versions, but recently found one of the videos (the Songhai Empire) and the illustrations may be mostly stock footage, but they definitely help contextualize the history in the landscape and environment.

His voice is definitely soothing - I've been using the episode on the Bronze Age collapse to help fall asleep (I hear about 10-15 minutes before I drift off, then wind back the next day for the bits I missed). It helps that I know what happens (the Bronze Age Collapses).
posted by jb at 3:43 PM on September 6 [2 favorites]

My favorite bit from the Easter Island episode:

Long after the end of the golden age when the Moai were erected, Europeans asked the Rapa Nui descended from the statue makers how the statues had gotten from the quarries to their final positions along the coast. The Rapa Nui consistently responded with the simple answer: "They walked." European scholars of course interpreted this as religious folk legends, and came up with various ideas for how the Rapa Nui must have moved the giant statues, including the use of logs as rollers which led to the idea that the island had been deforested in order to meet the endless need for leaders to erect Moai. But it turns out the descendants of the statue makers were telling the simple truth!
posted by biogeo at 3:44 PM on September 6 [4 favorites]

I would also second the Easter Island episode as excellent - it addresses the de-forestation of the island but also points out that the people of Rapa Nui adapted their farming. It was colonialism and slavery that devastated the population.
posted by jb at 3:45 PM on September 6 [3 favorites]

This has been my favorite bedtime podcast for the last week or so. Really excellent stuff.
posted by interogative mood at 5:49 PM on September 6

Been following this channel for a while. Excellent stuff. Highly recommend it. :)
posted by Pouteria at 6:48 PM on September 6

Maybe this defeats the whole point of a podcast, but are there transcripts for these at all?
posted by Kitchen Witch at 10:26 PM on September 6 [2 favorites]

I will say that, at least in the subject I know the best, the Norse in Greenland, Cooper got some details wrong (e.g. he seems to think the Norse only traveled across the sea on longships) but the big picture he gets right. Which is the opposite of how history podcasts usually fail.
posted by Kattullus at 10:45 PM on September 6 [4 favorites]

My experience echoes that off Kattullus. On a subject I know very well, the Aztecs, the podcast made a series of basic factual errors. Not enough to undermine the events, but it was off-putting.

I was more bothered by the basic tone and focus of the episode. The focus was on, and agency was granted explicitly to, the Spanish. A huge chunk was simply about Cortés, with the Aztec side of things largely being the field where events happened, rather than active participants. That's fine for something put out 50 years ago, but there have been a couple generations of scholars who have put in the work to illuminate the sociopolitical world of the Aztecs at time of contact.

This problem is endemic to podcasts which soon to cover multiple areas of history, whether along a particular theme or not. They tend to just repeat the most easily available narrative without drawing upon more recent work which delves deeper into the nuances of the topic.
posted by Panjandrum at 1:26 AM on September 7 [5 favorites]

Yes, I also agree with Kattullus, though I know more about Roman Britain.

As a native of North East England (the area in the song The Underpants Monster linked to) I was annoyed when Paul Cooper kept referring to a "rock outcrop" the Roman Wall was built on. That rock outcrop has a name, the Whin Sill and it is pretty fundamental to where Hadrian's Wall was built. The Great Whin Sill is pretty much why similar things in geology are called sills. He could have at least name dropped it.
posted by antiwiggle at 3:45 AM on September 7 [5 favorites]

Panjandrum: I was more bothered by the basic tone and focus of the episode. The focus was on, and agency was granted explicitly to, the Spanish. A huge chunk was simply about Cortés, with the Aztec side of things largely being the field where events happened, rather than active participants.

That’s disappointing to hear. I haven’t listened to the last three yet, and one thing that impressed me about the earlier ones is that the perspective of the society undergoing collapse has been privileged over others. As I said in my last comment, the big picture has been accurate enough that I’ve found it easy to forgive errors of fact.
posted by Kattullus at 7:05 AM on September 7

I've been watching/listening to these for the last week or so, they are really exceptional. If anyone was on the fence about watching them I urge you to find some time. The Easter Island/Rapa Nui episode was absolutely devastating.
posted by Acey at 2:48 AM on September 12 [1 favorite]

I finally started listening to the Aztec one, and it really feels like it was written in a hurry. I’m less than ten minutes in and he’s already talked about the people who live in Mexico City as if they wouldn’t know about the Aztecs, and referred to dinosaurs as “reptiles”.

Weirdly, all dinosaurs he mentions that would’ve been around to perish when the asteroid impacted are late Cretaceous, so it’s not like he didn’t do the research. But he still calls dinosaurs reptiles.

But that’s merely annoying. The bit where he seems to think Mexicans don’t know about the Aztec is a lot more wtf. To the point where I wonder if he just misread his own writing while reading it into the microphone.

I guess my point is that he needs to hire an editor.
posted by Kattullus at 2:16 AM on September 19

I don't quite understand the issue with calling dinosaurs reptiles. They are reptiles: an abbreviated taxonomy goes something like chordata > tetrapoda > reptilia > archosauriformes > dinosauria. There are also a number of large reptiles from the Cretaceous that are frequently called "dinosaurs" in popular culture but actually aren't, such as pterosaurs (including the Aztec-inspired-named quetzalcoatlus), so if those were included in the discussion it would be more correct to use the overarching term "reptile" rather than the less-accurate "dinosaur". But I haven't listened to the episode yet so maybe I'm missing something.
posted by biogeo at 12:08 PM on September 20

True, dinosaurs are reptiles, phylogenetically speaking, but so are birds. To my ear it would've been just as weird if he'd referred to the Aztecs decorating themselves with reptile feathers.

That said, I recognize that the way he talked about the people who live in Mexico City may have primed me to be annoyed at minor faults.
posted by Kattullus at 1:08 PM on September 20

I gave up on the Aztec episode somewhere in the middle of Cooper’s extensive recounting of interpersonal drama between Spanish colonizers. It didn’t interest me in general and I didn’t understand how it was supposed to relate to the fall of the Aztec empire.

I listened to the Han episode, which was a lot better, but suffered from having a bunch of digressions, though mercifully brief in comparison to the biography of Cortes. But on the whole it was a return to form.

But I understood a little of what was going on when Cooper got to the coda and started talking about how more funding would allow him to make the episodes longer. They certainly are, but not to their benefit.

I went back to an older episode, on the Songhai empire, and was struck by how much more focused it was. The illustrative example was how the comparable figure to Cortes, a Portuguese man with gunpowder weapons, got maybe a minute’s worth of biography. Which, when it comes to the story of the collapse of the Songhai, is what was appropriate.

Cortes should’ve gotten a minute long introduction too.

I decided not to listen to the Byzantium episode, but want to hear what he does next, so I haven’t unsubscribed.
posted by Kattullus at 6:37 AM on September 25

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