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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, December 14, 2006

Gibson gilds Mayan history

By William Booth
Washington Post

Jaguar Paw, played by Rudy Youngblood, faces death by sacrifice as he flees the Maya kingdom to avoid his fate, in Mel Gibsonís "Apocalypto."

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Director Mel Gibson works on the set of his epic drama "Apocalypto" about the collapse of the Mayan civilization. Archaeologists and anthropologists have challenged the movie's interpretation of history.

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Mel Gibson's "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 ó 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, 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," Brown University anthropology professor Stephen 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, anthropology professor at the University of California, 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.

    David Freidel, archaeology professor at Southern Methodist University, 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. 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 Arthur Demarest, anthropology professor at Vanderbilt University. "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."