This post is slightly reworked from an article published in Swedish, in Arkeologen (2007) called Apocalypto – Mel Gibsons maya kontra arkeologernas maya or Apocalypto – The Maya of Mel Gibson vs the Maya of the archaeologists. I divide this article into three posts. The first one deals with the critique that Mayanists have delivered against the movie. The next posts shall deal with why I consider this critique to be partially wrong (not that I support Gibson’s version of the Maya, but he is not the only one to blame).
Reactions to the Mel Gibson movie, “Apocalypto” (world premiere December 8, 2006), did not wait for long. A number of American and European archaeologists, anthropologists and art historians have written about the inaccuracies and distortion of the Prehispanic “Maya culture” that the movie undeniably conveys (Aimers and Graham 2007; Sitler 2006, Stone 2006; Wayeb 2006a, 2006b; Xispas 2006). The objections against the movie are many, especially against the view of the “Maya culture” the movie as a whole is considered to show: a violent and evil culture that finally had to collapse and to be saved by Catholics. There is no need to interpret the arrival of the Spaniards at the end of the movie in this way. However, it is symptomatic that Mayanist researchers interpret the arrival in this way because it is politically correct to do so.
Apocalypto is from beginning to end a geographical and historical mixture of different architectural styles and events that probably would not have been made if the movie was about more popular (and publicly well known) Hollywood historical fictions on, let’s say, the Roman Empire. The architecture depicted in the city is a mixture of Late Classic Tikal and Terminal Classic Puuc buildings. These styles are dated to around AD 600-900. There are also murals inspired by the Late Formative site of San Bartolo (around AD 100). Since the Spaniards arrive at the end of the movie it should take place in the early 1500s, since Columbus “discovered” America in 1492. Maya did indeed meet the Spaniards in the 1500s but at that time the architecture was different and its monumental scale was significantly smaller. Had Gibson located his story to the 16th century Aztecs, who also confronted the Spaniards, his movie could have avoided parts of the criticism.
Gibson’s grip to let the characters speak a (contemporary) Maya language gives the illusion of authenticity. However, the Yukatek Maya spoken by the main character and some of the other actors is not correct since these actors are from the U.S. and not Maya speakers themselves. The names of the characters in the movie are partly the nicknames given to some of Tikal’s rulers before their names could be deciphered. These names are Jaguar Paw and Curl Nose. These are not the correct ancient Maya names as the current epigraphic research interprets them. These names were actually Chak Tok Ich’aak and Yax Nuun Ayiin and the names do not mean Jaguar Paw and Curl Nose in English translation. These were not even Yukatek names but belonged to a different Maya language.
Jaguar Paw’s village, which is attacked in the beginning of the movie, is more similar to Amazon settlements than the farming settlements found in the Maya area. In the movie, people walk through endless rain forests, but in reality the distance between rural areas and large centers was not very far, sometimes the rural areas were located within the centers themselves.
The list on flaws in the movie is almost endless and it is not difficult to detect them if you have some basic knowledge of the area’s history and archaeology. The critique of the movie has either focused on these flaws or on the “ethnocentric” view of the Maya it depicts. However, I find it far more interesting to see the reactions of the researchers. These reactions will be discussed in another post.