Apocalypto: Historical facts or Hollywood-fiction?
12 January 2007, By: Sebastiaan Roeling
Gibson’s new thriller about the Ancient Maya civilization was
released in the Dutch cinema on 11th January 2007.
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
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.
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.
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’
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 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.