Culture Shocker
Scholars Say Mel Gibson's Action Flick Sacrifices the Maya Civilization to Hollywood

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).

"I can promise you that there will be a massive repudiation of this film, not only as a work of fiction, but as a systematic and willful misrepresentation of the Maya," says David Freidel, archaeology professor at Southern Methodist University.

Tough talk, but Gibson has taken heat in the past and come out way ahead. As he did in "The Passion of the Christ," which employed spoken Aramaic, Gibson's players in "Apocalypto," many of them indigenous people and non-actors, speak an ancient language. In this case, it's one of the extant Maya languages called Yucatek, which along with Gibson's skill as a filmmaker, may enhance the verisimilitude of "Apocalypto."

Gibson declined to be interviewed by The Washington Post, but in production notes, the writer-producer-director states that his initial goal was to create a "high-velocity action-adventure chase film" and that he then sought an ancient culture in which to set his go-fast story. The Maya appealed to him, Gibson says, because he sees parallels between the collapse of the ancient Maya civilization and our own. "It was important for me to make that parallel because you see these cycles repeating themselves over and over again," Gibson says. "People think that modern man is so enlightened, but we're susceptible to the same forces."

Gibson's consultant on the project was Richard Hansen, a respected Mayanist and professor at Idaho State University, as well as the president of the Foundation for Anthropological Research and Environmental Studies, which does preservation work and study in Guatemala. Gibson, a generous contributor to the group, now serves on its board of directors.

Hansen defends the film, believing that his fellow Mayanists will be "pleasantly surprised." He says, "For the most part it is very accurate," and "I was amazed at the level of detail, the stone tools, gourds, iguana skins, strung up turkeys, just amazed." Yet, he adds, "there were things I didn't like that they went ahead and did anyway," and he agrees "there was a lot of artistic license taken," and that there is a mash-up of architectural styles, art, costume and ritual from different time periods during the millennium-long Maya reign.

And the sacrifice, the gore, the Maya as savage? The film does "give the feeling they're a sadistic lot," Hansen says. "I'm a little apprehensive about how the contemporary Maya will take it."

"Apocalypto" tells the story of Jaguar Paw, a young hunter who lives in a primordial forest, and is taken captive by a raiding party, marched to the city, slathered in blue paint and hauled up to the blood-soaked altar at the top of a pyramid to have his heart and skull removed by a shaman for his slit-eyed king. But wait! Jag Paw escapes -- and then it's a chase movie.

So where do the Maya end and where does Mel begin?

· Gibson shows grisly human sacrifice. And yes, indeed, the Maya were into it. Let us count the ways: decapitation, heart excision, dismemberment, hanging, disembowelment, skin flaying, skull splitting and burning.

But: The humans being chopped into nibbles were more likely to be royals and elites, not common forest dwellers like the film's Jaguar Paw and crew. "They didn't run around rounding up ordinary people to sacrifice," Houston says.

· The film depicts human sacrifice on a large scale and shows an open-pit grave filled with hundreds of headless dead, like something out of the Cambodian killing fields or the Nazi death camps.

But: "We have no evidence of mass graves," says Karl Taube, professor of anthropology at the University of California at Riverside. At times the film appears to confuse the Aztecs (who engaged in mass sacrifice) and the Maya. "We know the Aztecs did that level of killing. Their accounts speak of 20,000," says Taube. But the Maya appear to have been more into quality (long, slow torture and death of kings) than quantity. Freidel says, "They disassembled the defeated kings as carefully as if they were a thermonuclear device, because they were dangerous enemies, capable of inflicting real harm."

· Gibson includes what appears to be widespread slavery. Masses of gloomy, starved captives are seen toiling under heavy loads, making lime cement and stucco, to build ceremonial centers.

But: "We have no evidence of large numbers of slaves," Taube says. Rather, most Mayanists suspect the pyramids and the like were built by free Maya who saw it as a civic duty, perhaps forced upon them, labor as tax, or perhaps voluntary, as the medieval cathedrals were built by European guilds.

Finally, the Mayanists say the film appears confused about when events take place. One of the great mysteries of the Maya is why their civilization "collapsed" around A.D. 900, when many of the great ceremonial cities, such as Tikal, were simply abandoned. The current thinking is that collapse had many fathers: drought, deforestation, disease, overpopulation, warfare, social disruption. And Gibson's movie includes a little riff on them all, and indeed the film begins with a quote from historian Will Durant about the Romans: "A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within."

But Gibson sets his film not during the era of Maya collapse in A.D. 900, but at the time of European contact in the early 1500s, when the first Spanish expeditions arrived on Maya shores. What wiped out the Maya in the 1500s was not internal rot, it was the Spanish, who brought European disease and fought for decades to pacify the Maya.

"Every society is violent," says Demarest. "And the Maya were no more cruel than any other, especially if you look at their entire history. What if you told the story of our history and didn't mention Pascal or Mozart or science or medicine and just focused on MTV and mass genocide?"

Or as Houston put it: "What if you showed the ancient Maya 'The Passion of the Christ'? They'd freak out."

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