By Zachary X. Hruby, Ph.D.
University of California at Riverside
Mel Gibson's new thriller about the ancient Maya civilization is exactly that, thrilling. However, this entertainment comes at a dear price. The Maya at the time of Spanish Contact are depicted as idyllic hunters and gatherers, or as genocidal murderers, and neither of these scenarios is accurate. The film represents a step backward in our understanding of the complex cultures that existed in the New World before the Spanish invasion, and is part of a disturbing trend reemerging in the film industry, which portrays nonwestern natives as evil savages. "King Kong" and "Pirates of the Caribbean II" show these natives as uncaring, beastlike, and virtually inhuman. Apocalypto achieves similar goals, but in a much subtler fashion.
As in "The Passion of the Christ," Gibson utilizes native language to invoke a veneer of credibility for his story, in this case Yucatec Maya, a technique that unfortunately does much to legitimize this rather strange version of Maya history. First, a typical Maya village is shown as an unorganized group of jungle people who appear to subsist on hunting alone. The Maya were an agricultural people with a very structured social and economic system. Even small villages in the hinterlands of large cities were connected to some political center. The jungle people in Gibson's movie are flabbergasted at the sight of the Maya city, exclaiming that they have never seen such buildings. The truth is that pyramids of comparable size were never more than 20 kilometers away from anywhere in the Maya world, be they occupied or abandoned.
Secondly, Mayan city people are shown as violent extremists bent on harvesting innocent villagers to provide flesh for sacrifice and women for slaves, leaving the children to die alone in the jungle. Hundreds of men are sacrificed on an Aztec-style sacrificial stone, their headless bodies thrown into a giant ditch reminiscent of a Holocaust documentary or a scene from the Killing Fields. Problem is, there exists no archaeological, historic, or ethnohistoric data to suggest that any such mass sacrifices, numbering in the thousands, or even hundreds, took place in the Maya world.
Third, once Gibson paints this bloody picture of 15th century Maya civilization using a warped characterization of events that occurred roughly five centuries before (i.e., the "Classic Maya Collapse"), the ultimate injustice is handed the Pre-Columbian Maya. As the jungle hero escapes the evil city and is chased by his antagonists all the way to the edge of the sea (literally nowhere else to turn), Spanish galleons appear, complete with a small lead boat carrying a stalwart friar hoisting a crucifix. For Gibson, the new beginning for these lost Mayan people, the Apocalypto, evidently is the coming of the Spaniards and Christianity to the Americas.
Although this film will undoubtedly create interest in the field of Maya archaeology by way of its spectacular reconstructions and beautiful jungle scenes, the lasting impression of Maya and other Pre-Columbian civilizations is this: The Maya were simple jungle bands or bloodthirsty masses duped by false religions, that their mighty but misguided civilization fell into ruin as a result, and their salvation arrived with the coming of Christian beliefs saddled on the backs of Spanish conquistadors. As we archaeologists struggle to accurately reconstruct ancient Maya society, obstructed by their decimation via Western diseases, destruction of their books, art, and history by Spanish friars, not to mention their subjugation and exploitation by the conquistadors, films such as Apocalypto represent a significant disparagement of that process. Further, inaccurate, irresponsible representations by Hollywood of indigenous peoples as amoral, inhuman, or uncivilized can only lead to greater misunderstanding and strife in contemporary society. This may be particularly important in a modern world where common ground is increasingly difficult to come by.
Also see the review by Dr. Traci Ardren.