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Orcs in Loincloths January 3, 2007
by Andrea Stone

A Mayanist Looks at Apocalypto

A gore-fest of the first order, Apocalypto is, ironically, a morality play warning that civilizations, no matter how mighty (read ours), are doomed if they lack moral bearings and their leaders indulge in material excess (like building ridiculously large pyramids). Theorists of the collapse of archaic states take note: it's not the economy stupid, it's the Seven Deadly Sins. The film is a lengthy parable filtered through the lens of ancient Maya civilization, which did crash from glorious heights, on more than one occasion in fact, although these collapses, in the Late Preclassic and Classic periods, were regionally focused--proving by Gibson's law of civilization and its discontents that the Maya weren't all equally depraved. Given that the film is not a documentary but a vehicle to entertain the masses in a tried and true visual language--freakish people ripping each other apart--and as an added bonus sneak in a lesson about the fall of civilizations, we must cut the filmmaker some slack and not expect every aspect of the film to be in synch with what is known historically and archaeologically. When has a period film ever aspired to purity?

That said, the fact is this concoction of the ancient Maya, which, to the film's credit includes many accurate details, but anachronistically drawn from over a 1,700-year period (roughly 200 B.C. to just after A.D. 1500), as well as details drawn from other cultures, and some, the brainchild of the film's creative advisors, will become the popular conception of the ancient Maya. This is already evident in on-line reviews by ordinary people, many of Native American or minority background, who profess newfound pride in the Maya heritage. Not to dismiss this pride but to ground it in historical context, I will enumerate some of the film's fantasies and states of confusion and also offer a bit of appreciation.

The Postclassic period was ambling along just fine, until the Spanish did their own version of a Mel Gibson movie on it.

What must be addressed first is the chronological mayhem. Movie critics of major newspapers set the film in the sixteenth century. And why not? In the parting shot three boatloads of Spanish conquistadors and priests silently wend their way to shore, harbingers of the ultimate downfall. This encounter finalized the Late Postclassic period, terminology possibly encouraging critics to characterize the time as the "dying," "waning," "declining"--you get the point--days of Maya civilization. Postclassic may suggest as much, but the really big fall of Maya civilization occurred at the end of the Late Classic period, during the ninth century. The Postclassic period, while less glorious, was ambling along just fine, thank you, until the Spanish did their own version of a Mel Gibson movie on it. Yet, there was also a "mini-collapse" at the end of the Late Preclassic period, around A.D. 200, after which Maya civilization experienced another buildup to the big Classic collapse. The Mayanist consultant for the film, Richard Hansen works on Late Preclassic kingdoms of the El Mirador Basin in Guatemala, and clearly this earlier "mini-collapse" is interwoven into the movie's theme. Indeed, the city's sprawl of towering pyramids recalls a painted reconstruction of El Mirador published by Hansen that I use for teaching (however, the temple tops fancifully blend Late Classic Tikal-style roof combs and sculptural ornaments from Puuc architecture). The captive Maya are led through a corridor with murals inspired by the spectacular San Bartolo murals, also Late Preclassic (ca. 150 B.C.). But, I have to assume that the film is set on the eve of the ninth-century Classic Maya collapse melded with the Preclassic decline, while the 16th century Spanish entrada is a spectral vision of the future, somewhat like Scrooge's Ghost of Christmas Future.

Now that this is settled, we can look at details, some minor and others, part of a discernible agenda. As a Mayanist viewer, I was disappointed with even trivial inaccuracies, for instance, the scenery. Though beautiful, misty mountains and high rocky cliffs overlooking roiling rivers, all near the ocean, are not Mayaland. I knowingly smiled when I heard the roar of a howler monkey but winced when I saw a blue and gold macaw. This bird is not native to the Maya area, and the one that is, the scarlet macaw, was a near cultural icon to the ancient Maya. Wasn't a scarlet macaw within reach of a multi-million dollar budget?

In dealing with costumes and body art, the film is an admixture of attempted faithfulness and, well, not. The film's Late Classic setting is evident in the costumes of royalty and priests echoing the splendor of Classic Maya art: a Triad pectoral, Copán-style turban with Tlaloc goggles, Palenque-style nose bridge plaque, and quetzal-feather regalia. Even daggers bear the three-knot symbol found on Late Classic instruments of blood sacrifice. Yet, these folks also wear turquoise jewelry and gold beads, materials that came in use after the Classic collapse of the southern Lowland cities. Elite city women wear towering, looped hairdos, as seen on painted vases, but their hair is inaccurately plaited in corn rows.

Except in a few cases, the film opted for the more stereotypical, but inaccurate, stick-through-the-nose.

Before discussing the jarring appearance of the warriors, let me say in fairness that the Maya, bedecked as we think they were based on visual and historical evidence, would have looked exotic to say the least. They potentially could have flashed smiles jade and obsidian dental inlays and had flattened, elongated skulls, something the film attempts to capture with a receding hairline and tall hairdo. The nasal septa of men and women might have been pierced, but probably would have held a round stone insert. Except in a few cases, the film opted for the more stereotypical, but inaccurate, stick-through-the-nose (some village women have heavy nose bars which are only seen in later periods). Body paint, tattooing, and scarification were all in the Classic Maya's repertoire of beautification and were lavishly applied to warriors. No criticism here, except that they are tweaked to appeal to our sensibilities. Tattooed rings around the biceps--shades of the NBA. Elaborate chest and abdominal scars. I think not. The most liberty is taken with facial piercings. Unlike the Aztecs, the Classic Maya did not wear labrets (the insert below the lip). Another invention is the needle-like sticks piercing the sides of Zero Wolf's nose, perhaps based on Amazonian facial piercing (for instance, Yanomama women pierce their cheeks with slender sticks). In an interview Richard Hansen has already commented on the strange beads strung from nose to ear as a directorial invention. The warriors' leather strap worn across the chest, while evoking an Indian brave, is also not typical.

Most disturbing are the close-ups of marauding warriors who look like slavering, brain-dead orcs.

This less-than subtle tweaking allows the film to offer up a smashing heavy-metal savage who, true to form, wields a club. The club is, oddly, a macuahuitl, also known by the Caribbean term macana. This weapon was famously used by the Aztecs, a wooden shaft slit on the sides where obsidian blades were inserted. It is not at all clear that the Classic Maya used a macuahuitl (this is noted, however, in Colonial Yucatan after a century of Central Mexican influence), and clubs of any kind are rarely represented in Maya art. The most common weaponry seen in art is a thrusting spear and shield. Off code with a message of primitive brutality, shields are conspicuously absent in the film. Can you imagine a Road Warrior with a shield? In fact, the imagery that most bothers me is not the body parts flying hither and thither. The Maya did practice grisly forms of sacrifice (qualifying this, the emphasis on heart sacrifice, followed by tossing the body down the pyramid is not so much Classic Maya, as Aztec shtick, whereas decapitation is more typical). Most disturbing are the close-ups of marauding warriors who look like slavering, brain-dead orcs. At one point the Orc-Maya even kill each other. What planet is this?

In the film's dualistic view of city and village, the utterly base corruption of the urbanites seems excessive. Maya dance entailed beautiful arm gestures and graceful steps, and rituals were structured by precise positioning in space, for instance, to cardinal directions. Even rank and hierarchy were expressed in spatial order. What is portrayed on screen is sheer chaos. Elite self-indulgence is epitomized in the production of stucco, heating and crushing limestone to make plaster for extravagant architectural projects. In the shadows of the pyramids reside enclaves of miserable slaves, dusted in white powder and bone thin. They remind me of the poor Israelites tormented by the cruel pharaoh. Only missing is the whip. The evil of stucco is evident in the dead trees littering the landscape; in fact, heating limestone for stucco may have been a cause of deforestation. While the Maya engaged in slavery, the film's sinister vision of massive subjugated labor is shockingly unfamiliar.

I expected Tarzan to appear at any minute and sweep her up into the trees.

The otherness of Jaguar Paw's village relative to the city-dwellers--who were only a day's walk away after all--also strikes me as unreal. I would never have identified this place as the hometown of Classic Maya corn farmers, who lived in a dispersed settlement pattern. The crowded huts made of pole walls, devoid of the mud plaster they commonly used, reminds me, perhaps naively, of an Amazonian village, especially when everyone huddles around a fire at night. Practically lying in the dirt, they look like a merry band of hunter-gatherers. Little of the appearance of Jaguar Paw's wife, Seven, reflects Maya culture. She has loose hair (Maya women put their hair up in neat buns and tresses), an absurdly short, pubic-length tattered skirt (they wore mid-calf skirts and dresses of cotton cloth), stacks of tiny beads conveniently covering her breasts (never seen that before), and tight, woven armbands. I expected Tarzan to appear at any minute and sweep her up into the trees. The village women's attire is especially "primitive." featuring skimpy skirts and string aprons. One unwitting film critic even referred to the villagers as hunter-gatherers! Let's get this straight. Even the most countrified Classic Maya were not hunter-gatherers.

Four gods are mentioned in the film, Ix Chel, Kulkulcan, Ek Chuah, and the Goddess of the Scaffold. While the latter seems invented (perhaps based on the goddess Xtabay), the rest of the pantheon pertains to Late Postclassic and contact period Maya culture, although the cult of the Feathered Serpent (Kulkulcan) came in vogue in the Terminal Classic period, immediately after the collapse, in northern Yucatan. Even the well-known Maya goddess Ix Chel is not attested in the Classic period (although an old goddess, Chak Chel, is). The displeasure of Kulkulcan is portrayed as the source of hard times in the city, and recovery from an eclipse is taken as a sign of his appeasement. Maya astronomy was advanced to the point that the priests had knowledge of windows of potential eclipses and shouldn't have been taken completely off guard by one. However, the film indulges in egregious "astronomical license" by staging the eclipse during the full moon. As I have been reminded by Satoru Murata of Boston University (correcting an earlier iteration of this review), eclipses can only occur during the new moon. Even a well-versed Maya priest wouldn't have been prepared for this eclipse.

Most clever is how the eclipse, the black jaguar, and the story's hero, Jaguar Paw, are interwoven. An afflicted child's prophecy links all three. In another scene, a jaguar mauls a man's face, a plausible metaphor for an eclipse, construed at times as a jaguar eating the face of the sun. Jaguar Paw is saved by an eclipse and also by the black jaguar's magical power, reflecting a concept of animal alter-egoism that is embedded in ancient Mesoamerican culture. When Jaguar Paw pulls an arrow from his chest, miraculously unscathed, a jaguar's roar can be heard in the distance. Slathered in black mud, eyes aglow, Jaguar Paw rises from the jungle floor transformed into his animal alter-ego. Now invincible, his mud coat protects him from stinging bees. Exhibiting heroism of mythic proportions, he vanquishes his adversaries and saves his family; then, puzzled, he turns to look at the Spanish fleet lurking on the horizon

Andrea Stone, a specialist in Mesoamerican art, particularly the art of the Classic Maya, teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and has carried out fieldwork in Guatemala, Mexico, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador.

Another Mayanist, SMU's David Freidel, weighs in on the film in our upcoming March/April issue.

© 2007 by the Archaeological Institute of America