Apocalypto: Historical facts or Hollywood-fiction?

12 January 2007, By: Sebastiaan Roeling

Mel Gibson’s new thriller about the Ancient Maya civilization was released in the Dutch cinema on 11th January 2007.

The movie begins with a quote that a civilization can only be conquered from outside when it is destroyed from the inside. In the last scène you can see the arrival of the First Spanish conquistadors together with a priest to introduce the ‘superstitious’ Maya with the ‘one and true faith’. Mel Gibson clearly tells us that the Maya were doomed to be conquered because they had violently destroyed their own world. It is therefore understandable that many contemporary Maya are feeling insulted and discriminated. One must not forget that the suppression of the Maya by a white minority was supported on a large scale by several governments until our own generation (especially in Guatemala where a civil war had costs the life of 300,000 Maya).

The movie itself is a spectacular thriller based on the Ancient Maya, not more and not less. The movie is depicting the Maya as peaceful hunter-gatherers, or as brutal and violent murderers. Neither of these scenarios is historically accurate. For Hollywood, however, extremes are a necessity to make an interesting movie. From the archaeologists or anthropologists point of view, it is a missed chance that there was no attention for the scientific accomplishments, like astronomical knowledge or hieroglyphic writing, or the social aspect of Maya society. But one could have expected that these aspects of Maya-society would have no place in a typical Hollywood movie, it is a thriller and not a documentary.

Several aspects of the movie do not correspond with what we know about Ancient Maya culture. The most important differences are discussed below. You are warned though: The following paragraphs contain details of the story.

For the First time in his life Jaguar Paw (the main character in the movie) hears about houses of stone, he has to walk several days to arrive at the city, obviously he arrived in a world that was unknown for him. In reality there was less than 20 kilometres between one Classic Maya-city and the other, although some of the cities were abandoned. It is very unlikely that Jaguar Paw had never seen houses of stone, or never even heard about it, especially because he seems to know the way in ‘his’ rainforest.

When Jaguar Paw enters the suburbs of the city he is entering a giant dirty mess, full of cruel, sick and hungry people. The first Spanish conquistadors, however, noticed that the Maya-cities, despite their immense size were organised and clean. Although the city in the movie is facing difficulties in the form of failing crops, this cannot be seen as an average view on a Classic Maya-city.

The Maya in the movie are sacrificing humans to the gods on a (very) large scale. Although the Ancient Maya did sacrifice humans, and they did made war to capture people for this purpose, there exists no archaeological or historic data to suggest that sacrifices took place on such a large scale.   

When Jaguar Paw is no longer needed as a sacrifice (Kukulkan had eaten enough) the high priest tells the warriors to release him and the other prisoners. The warriors that captured the men, however, do not have the intention to release them. They are planning to kill all of them on a sadistic and cruel way. These warriors therefore do not give an accurate view on Maya-society. Murder was a very serious sin that was punished severely. Surely there were murderers and bloodthirsty warriors among the Maya and other American culture, just like there were and are murderers among the European, African and Asian people. This does not mean, however, that all Maya were murdererd and bloodthirsty warriors.

During his escape Jaguar Paw is literally walking into a mass grave. Although there has been found a grave with multiple murdered bodies in it, no mass grave with so many bodies as in the movie is known in the Maya-area. Mass graves were not used to dump sacrificed bodies. The only true mass Grave that were found in the Maya-area is the holy cenote in Chichén Itzá, that has been used for sacrifices during hundreds of years and thus was filled with skeletons and a small mass grave in the city of Cancuen.

The movie appears to be situated in the 9th century, based on the architecture of the city, the political system and the great drought. It is therefore historically incorrect that the Spanish arrive at the end of the movie; this should have been 600 years later.

It would be wrong, however, to write about the movie in a completely negative point of view. There are also interesting aspects of the movie that deserve attention.

It is admirable that the actors are speaking in a Maya dialect (in this case Yucatec Maya). It has to be noticed that Maya is by no means a ‘dead language’, like has been written by other reviewers. The clothing of the commoners, warriors and nobility shows us how these groups of the population must have looked like during the Classic Period. It is noticeable how well every small detail was taken into account.

The way how limestone is burned and how Jaguar Paw attacks his followers with a beehive (an old war tactic) is noticeable. The typical architecture of the city is placing the movie in the 9th century. It is even possible to determine a location for the city based on its architecture, namely the Petén area (North of the present Guatemala). It is interesting to see how these structures must have looked like when they were in use (painted and unbattered).

It is very well possible that this movie will have some large consequences for the general view on Ancient Maya society. Perhaps the movie will create the interest of some people to learn more about the true Maya-cultures. The majority of the visitors, however, will go home with a wrong image of how Maya-society must have looked like. An image that many archaeologists and anthropologists, but especially many Mayans, are trying to change by learning people the truth.