Culture Shocker

Mel Gibson, with Espiridian Acosta Canche during the making of
Mel Gibson, with Espiridian Acosta Canche during the making of "Apocalypto." (By Andrew Cooper -- Icon Distribution)
By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 9, 2006


The world audience is very familiar with the deeds of the overachievers of the ancient world, as told through the movies, the tales of the rise and fall, et cetera, et cetera, of your celebrity civilizations, such as the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans.

Now it is time for the Maya to shine, but they are a more mysterious, less overexposed people who finally get star billing on the big screen in Mel Gibson's new film "Apocalypto." How do they do as a civilization? Not so nice. Let's say you had a time travel machine? You definitely would not want to dial back to Mel's Maya, not without superior body armor. They would stick a fork in you.

"Apocalypto" depicts the Maya as a super-cruel, psycho-sadistic society on the skids, a ghoulscape engaged in widespread slavery, reckless sewage treatment and bad rave dancing, with a real lust for human blood. Think: Caligula of the Yucatan. Follow the bouncing heads!

This is a problem because most scholars, while acknowledging the violence of this pre-Columbian society, universally applaud the Maya as among the New World's most sophisticated and subtle civilizations. They were, especially at their height around A.D. 800, remarkable Stone Agers who erected avant-garde cities and towering pyramids in the jungles of Mexico and Central America, created sumptuous art, practiced a precise astronomy and (yes, there's more) developed not only a written language, but a heady cosmology of time and space, built around a complex, ordered society of maize, kings and gods. The Maya flourished for a thousand years. They were winners.

But "Apocalypto's" focus on the more, shall we say, extreme hobbies of the Maya (i.e., removal of still operating body parts) is giving the community of Maya researchers the fits. The archaeologists are shouting: slander! They're circulating statements and editorials and e-mails.

"It is a shocking movie to us," says Stephen Houston, professor of anthropology at Brown University, and like the other Mayanists quoted in this article, a scientist who has spent years excavating sites in Mexico and Central America.

Houston and his colleagues say they are not just engaging in the predictable academic nitpicking about the historical accuracy of a potential Hollywood blockbuster -- though they are also happy to point out the alleged goofs (the famous Bonampak murals are altered to show a warrior holding a dripping human heart when nothing was in his hand before) -- and, in fact, they applaud the things Gibson and his designers got generally right (the groovy tattoos, facial scarification, colorful textiles, nasty weaponry, punky ear plugs, etc.)

The main gripe, says Houston, is that "Apocalypto" will make a bad impression on the general public. "For millions of people this might be their first glimpse of the Maya," he says. "This is the impression that is going to last. But this is Mel Gibson's Maya. This is Mel Gibson's sadism. This is not the Maya we know."

Some of the scientists have seen the movie, others have watched the trailers, read reviews or summaries. David Stuart, professor of Mesoamerican art and writing at the University of Texas, saw a rough cut of the film with Gibson and penned an unpublished editorial with Houston that suggests Gibson's Maya are so evil that they were "a civilization . . . that deserves to die."

Arthur Demarest, anthropology professor at Vanderbilt University, says, "I don't care about some minor historical inaccuracies. That's Hollywood. What I'm very worried about is how the Maya themselves will perceive the film."

As Demarest points out, the Maya are not a extinct lineage. Their descendants, 6 million or more, are still living in Mexico and Central America. (The film does not open south of the border until next year).

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