[Marxism] "Apocalypto" and Mayan history

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Dec 16 07:06:56 MST 2006

Maya in the Thunderdome
In "Apocalypto," Mel Gibson paints a feverish, 
childish version of the Maya -- and mangles 
decades of scholarship about this complex civilization.

By Marcello A. Canuto

Dec. 15, 2006 | As a scholar of the Maya 
civilization, I was anxious to see Mel Gibson's 
portrayal of the Maya in "Apocalypto." Of course, 
I realize the movie is not a documentary and was 
mindful of the director's artistic license. I was 
happy to see that Gibson got some details right, 
like personal adornment, tools and body 
decoration. Although the main actors are native 
North Americans, I applaud Gibson's use of some 
Maya actors, as well as his decision to have the 
characters speak in a native Maya language, 
Yukatek, still heard in Mexico. While these are 
brave and ambitious choices, they also imply that 
"Apocalypto" is a sincere depiction of Maya 
society. In fact, the movie is not an accurate 
portrayal of the Maya at all; rather, it is a 
reflection of Gibson's own feverish imagination.

The movie tracks a young Mayan man who is 
captured in a surprise raid on his village. 
Forced to abandon his family, he and his 
companions are taken to the nearby city to be 
sacrificed. He manages to escape and, pursued by 
his captors, attempts to return to his village to 
save his family. During his getaway, he reaches a 
beach where he witnesses the arrival of Spaniards.

This final scene tells us that the movie focuses 
on Maya society on the eve of Spanish contact in 
the 16th century. Yet the Maya city portrayed in 
the movie, central to its plot, dates roughly to 
the 9th century. This is akin to telling a story 
about English pilgrims founding the Massachusetts 
Bay Colony, and showing them living in longhouses 
described in "Beowulf." In fact, Gibson 
incorporates Maya images from as far back as 300 
B.C. Throughout the movie, these anachronisms 
make Maya civilization seem timeless, and 
undermine the idea that the Maya could and did respond to change.

"Apocalypto" opens with a village of Maya 
hunter-gatherers living in harmony within a 
tropical forest. While the Eden-like scene makes 
for great cinematography, it is not supported by 
archaeological data. To begin with, the Maya were 
not organized into small hunter-gatherer groups 
sustained by the jungle's bounty. Starting in the 
first millennium B.C, Maya society was organized 
into complex farming villages. By 200 B.C, their 
landscape was dominated by cities of thousands of 
people composed of monumental temples, royal 
palaces and public art. Five centuries later, 
dozens of royal cities like Tikal and Calakmul 
were thriving in a region with hundreds of 
thousands of people. During this time, Maya 
society was made up of farmers, masons, warriors, 
scribes, priests, artists, musicians, noble 
elites and holy lords -- many of whom are not even seen in "Apocalypto."

The movie's infamous violence begins when the 
tribe's idyllic world is shattered by a surprise 
attack of fierce raiders seeking both captives 
and slaves to take back to their city. The 
ensuing carnage leaves little to the imagination. 
But Gibson forces us to empathize with the 
ingenuous villagers by juxtaposing their baffled 
terror with the puerile sadism of their attackers.

However, the Maya were hardly babes in the woods. 
By 300 B.C., the Maya had developed political and 
economic systems that were regionally integrated. 
People living in nearby towns, villages or 
homesteads -- within a day's walk from larger 
centers -- would venture into the city to sell or 
buy at the market, pay tribute requirements, 
witness political spectacles or attend to 
religious devotions. Therefore, populations that 
lived near larger centers would have been more 
substantially aware of activities in these 
capital cities than the movie implies. The 
villagers would have understood the threat of 
raids, battles and wars -- which were a regular part of Maya society.

The movie continues with a harrowing march of 
tears and blood. Captured villagers are led to a 
"place of stone houses." They witness the felling 
of the sacred ceiba tree, hear the admonitions of 
a pestilent infant Oracle and the ravings of a 
sickly elder, intermingle with a ghostly army of 
construction laborers, and suffer the degradation 
of being sold in a slave market. Elites, 
portrayed as "ugly without silliness," are shown 
killing the innocent with schoolyard cruelty.

These scenes reflect the exploitation of natural 
resources, violence, social repression, and 
detached ruling class that archaeologists have 
proposed as causes for the "Classic Maya 
collapse" in the 9th and 10th centuries. Although 
the debate about the collapse continues, the 
images of a diseased populace in the movie do not 
fit with the data. Maya cities were likely to 
have been much healthier than contemporary European ones.

Whatever the causes, the collapse was primarily 
of a system of governance, not a self-immolating 
culture. The movie misses this important 
distinction by creating a spurious contrast 
between a rural idyll and an urban miasma of 
excess and violence. The truth is that within 
several generations of the Classic Maya collapse, 
other regal cities with different forms of 
government would flourish in other parts of the 
Maya area. Over several millennia, the Maya 
underwent many cycles of growth and decline, each 
with its own major cities. The idea, proposed by 
the movie, that Maya civilization was at the 
verge of final self-destruction makes for good 
drama, but does not reflect the depth of this 
civilization's resilience and history.

Once in the city, some of Gibson's villagers are 
designated for sacrifice. Slathered in blue body 
paint, they are led through the central 
ceremonial precinct of the city. Amid a throng of 
possessed dancers, they see murals depicting 
blue-painted figures with their chests cut open. 
The villagers are led up scaffolds along a 
pyramid, where a long line of captives are being 
killed. One by one they are splayed across an 
altar, their chests cut open and their hearts 
ripped out by the king. They are then decapitated 
and their headless bodies flung down the massive 
frontal staircase to the cheers of the ruck 
below. Gibson's portrayal of a fervent and 
orgiastic mob completely violates what we know 
about Maya propriety in ritual behavior. Many 
modern Maya rituals, such as processions or 
prayers, are deliberate and serious affairs.

The treatment of sacrifice is also inaccurate and 
misleading. Much of what we see recorded by the 
Maya is a form of sacrifice known as 
auto-sacrifice -- self-inflicted bloodletting 
involving piercing ear lobes, fingers, tongues 
and penises. This practice was often the duty of 
ruling families, interceding on behalf of the 
people to the gods. Animal sacrifice was also 
common. In fact, Gibson's villagers would have 
conducted such sacrifices for their household and 
agricultural rites, although we never see them do so in the movie.

Interestingly, murals recently discovered at San 
Bartolo in Guatemala depict scenes of 
auto-sacrifice and animal sacrifice. They reveal 
gods undertaking rites that bring the world into 
creation. Gibson cribbed these images for his 
mural scene but saw fit to alter them to convey a 
view of the Maya involved in wanton human sacrifice.

Human sacrifice was indeed important to Maya 
society. The Classic period gives us numerous 
depictions of severed heads, and even of headless 
bodies flung down staircases. However, in most 
cases, such sacrifices were of single victims of 
noble rank whose identity was prominently 
recorded for posterity, not a mass of unknown 
farmers. We have evidence of larger mass graves. 
But in these rare examples, it appears that 
warfare between competing cities led to the 
capture and summary execution of enemies. In 
either case, the victims would not have been anonymous individuals.

It's true that sacrificial practices among the 
Maya did change somewhat during the final 
centuries before the Spanish arrival. Spanish 
accounts note that some Maya pyramids along the 
Yucatan coast were covered with blood -- 
presumably human, though the Spanish never 
witnessed any of the sacrifices themselves. It is 
also true that "skull-racks," as seen in the 
movie, were found at some sites in the Yucatan. 
However, these were practices adopted by Maya 
groups very late in their history.

But in the movie, our hero is spared from being 
sacrificed, thanks to a fortuitously timed solar 
eclipse. The king announces that the eclipse is a 
good omen -- the gods are sated and require no 
more human flesh. This raises the problem of what's not in the movie.

The prediction of the solar eclipse is the only 
allusion to one of the more celebrated and 
important facets of Maya civilization -- their 
advanced state of knowledge in mathematics, 
astronomy and geometry. Maya calendrical, 
astronomical and mathematical systems were so 
advanced that they could predict eclipses, track 
Venus as morning and evening star, and compute 
the annual solstices and equinoxes decades in 
advance. In fact, the Maya made regular use of 
the concept of "zero" centuries before Fibonacci 
introduced it to Europe. Although an emphasis on 
Maya intellectual achievement would have been 
appropriate, it would have been inconsistent with 
the movie's theme of a cruel and savage Maya civilization.

In an action scene that springs entirely from 
Gibson's imagination, our hero is able to escape 
the city. Pursued by his captors, he runs through 
a dead corn field and hides in a field of 
decapitated corpses. This "killing field" is 
perfectly consistent with the movie's blood lust, 
but ever more distant from the real Maya. He 
flees through the jungle, and with only two 
pursuers remaining, he bursts out of the forest 
onto a beach. There, where the land ends and the 
water begins, both he and his tormentors witness 
Spanish galleons and rowboats ferrying Spaniards 
and Christianity to the lands of the Maya. His 
pursuers, as if in a trance, walk weakly toward 
the arriving Spaniards. Their pursuit is now 
irrelevant, as their world is about to end.

Again, the historical facts tell a different and 
more compelling story. Several accounts exist of 
Spanish expeditions in the early 1500s, sailing 
from Cuba and making stops along the Yucatan 
coast for provisions. Invariably these encounters 
ended badly for the Spaniards. So fierce was the 
Maya defense of their lands that Cortés avoided 
much of this coast, choosing to land farther west 
along what is known today as the coast of 
Veracruz. The Maya, at the time of the conquest, 
were intractable and fiercely autonomous. Most 
villages resisted the Spaniards. In fact, the 
Spanish conquest of the Maya was a long 
protracted campaign that some claim goes on to this very day.

In "Apocalypto," the arrival of the Spanish 
signals "a new beginning." Remarkably, the event 
is portrayed as tranquil, as if the Spaniards are 
the adults who have finally come to rescue the 
"littleuns" stranded on the island of William 
Golding's "Lord of the Flies." In reality, the arrival was anything but serene.

Within decades of the first contact with the 
Spaniards, the Maya would die in the hundreds of 
thousands as European diseases, colonial 
exploitation and cruelty took root. In 1552, in 
the name of Christian piety, Fray Diego de Landa 
ordered that hundreds of Maya codices, carrying 
sacred knowledge accumulated over centuries, be 
burned as works of the devil. If there were ever 
an apocalypse in the history of the Maya -- and 
herein lies the ultimate demoralizing irony of 
the movie -- it would be because of European 
contact. But in the movie, after two hours of 
excess, hyperbole and hysteria, the Spaniards 
represent the arrival of sanity to the Maya 
world. The tacit paternalism is devastating.

After many centuries of misguided and simplistic 
views of the Maya, recent scholarship has shown 
the complexity and historical depth of their 
civilization. In Maya society, as in all 
civilizations, violence, surfeit and disparity 
were balanced by accomplishment, restraint and 
illumination. Gibson's feverish vision of a 
childish Maya society sacrificing itself to 
extinction is more than inaccurate, it works 
against the progress of decades of diligent 
scholarship to restore to present-day Maya people 
a heritage of which they are proud, and from 
which we have much to learn. I can only hope that 
audiences seeing this movie will be motivated to 
learn about the Maya -- present and past -- 
rather than be sated by Gibson's sacrificial 
offering at the altar of entertainment.

-- By Marcello A. Canuto

More information about the Marxism mailing list