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TV review: Jungle Mystery, The Truth About Amazon, and We Are Who We Are

11 December 2020

Channel 4

The palaeoarchaeologist Ella Al-Shamahi in Jungle Mystery: Lost kingdoms of the Amazon (Channel 4, Saturday)

The palaeoarchaeologist Ella Al-Shamahi in Jungle Mystery: Lost kingdoms of the Amazon (Channel 4, Saturday)

THE priest was right all along! Gaspar de Carvajal’s account of Orellana’s navigation of the entire length of the Amazon in the 1540s, describing populous and sophisticated civilisations, has always been assumed to be a work of fancy. In Jungle Mystery: Lost kingdoms of the Amazon (Channel 4, Saturday), the palaeoarchaeologist Ella Al-Shamahi broadcast the current discoveries that prove his accuracy.

Hasn’t the Amazon Basin always been impenetrable wilderness, unsullied nature’s pristine realm, with only a few impoverished human settlements clinging on to a meagre existence along its river banks? By no means: one positive result of industrial forest clearance is to reveal the evidence of extensive networks of settlements connected by roads — structures so large-scale and regular as to prove highly organised, centralised societies, creating surplus wealth able to support vast construction projects.

We do not have to destroy the jungle to find the evidence: laser technology is now precise enough to map the ground surface from the air through the canopy. But why was so much forgotten for so long? Spanish conquistadors did not destroy these civilisations by force of arms: they simply introduced, unknowingly, European diseases that killed off 90 per cent of the population.

The jungle soon took over; but history here, as so often, provides illumination for the future. The world’s insatiable appetite for beef does not have to turn the entire river basin into grazing pasture: large and complex human populations can live off this land sustainably.

A sour critic might conclude that civilisation lost is the theme that links that programme to The Truth About Amazon: How it took over the world (Channel 4, Tuesday of last week). Humankind’s greatest ever retail entity has done well from the pandemic: its sales have increased by 40 per cent. It is difficult to characterise its determined and single-minded expansion as anything other than ruthless. Quite unashamedly copying from rivals any successful process, refining it, and discarding inessentials, it offers a remarkable blueprint for success. Slowly, inexorably — even though the impression that it invariably provides best value for money is easily disproved — it seeks to take over every purchase we’ll ever make.

What could be more agreeable than to settle on the Venetian lagoon, cradle of art and culture, with every comfort provided? Well, according to We Are Who We Are (BBC1, Tuesdays), if you are a stroppy teenager from the United States whose mother has just been appointed commander of an American military base, flaunting her same-sex relationship, you’d think that no greater existential torture could have been devised.

This is a remarkably sophisticated drama with superlative performances, exquisitely shot, a meditation on emptiness in the midst of plenty: the central character, Fraser, raises the concept of all-round-obnoxious brat to hitherto undreamed-of levels of ghastliness.

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