Posted by: Johan Normark | May 12, 2009

Apocalypto – turning the Mayanists’ critique against themselves

Here follows the second of three posts on Mel Gibson’s movie Apocalypto. According to Gibson Apocalypto is intended to reflect the society of today as he sees it. If it is Iraq or Dafur he tries to represent his intention may reflect a reality, but the movie hardly reflects an American, Australian or Swedish everyday reality. Gibson describes people fleeing from drought and war and people who are captured to become slaves or to be sacrificial victims. However, this is in line with the scenario for the so-called “Maya collapse” (AD 750-1100) a concept still used by some Mayanists today, even among those who have criticized the movie. Most researchers are no longer talking about a collapse but rather a transformation process (Normark 2004, 2006a, 2006b).

I myself had my share of doubts when I saw the movie trailer and read the first comments by Mayanists. I treated the movie in a similar vein in a discussion forum called Arkeologiforum under the pseudonym Jasaw. However, after watching the movie I find it far more interesting to discuss the researchers’ predictable reactions. For example, one researcher believes that the eclipse in the movie portray the Maya as superstitious. Apparently the researcher is referring to how conquerors (Spaniards in this case) portray their opponents as less knowledgeable. It is argued that the Maya was, in fact, prominent astronomers and would have foreseen the eclipse. According to me it seems that the priests and the king on the temple are not amazed about the event. It was they who had access to this astronomical knowledge. It is unlikely that the crowd below the temple knew of astronomical calculations. Rather, the king and the priests appear to make use of the eclipse in a power demonstration as the culmination of a lengthy ritual sacrifice. This sequence reflects roughly how some Maya researchers themselves argue how celestial phenomena were used for manipulating power (but without Apocalypto’s mass slaughter). However, in the Mayanist discourse this is not called superstition but rather ideology and/or cosmology.

Critics are troubled with the violence and human victims. The scenes with the human victims are partly based on what research knows from the Maya area but mixed with some ingredients from the Aztecs. The throwing of bodies down the stairs is an interpretation based on Maya art and this interpretation is done by well known Mayanists. The scene where the main character is running over a ditch with hundreds of corpses is certainly exaggerated, but mass graves have been found in the Maya area. One such place is Cancuen. In the case of Cancuen, the bodies were probably not sacrificial victims but executed persons. The critics are outraged that the film scene is similar to mass graves from World War II’s concentration camps. However, it is primarily the excessive scale that can be criticized and that the rotting carcasses have not been covered.

The main character (Jaguar Paw) comes from a small village and is of simple birth. The only persons who are known to have been sacrificed in Maya art seems to have belonged to the elite and therefore some critics argue that small villages should have been unlikely places to obtain victims. In the Petexbatun area in Guatemala, there are several smaller sites without monumental buildings which have been fortified, which indicates that not only the elite were affected by endemic warfare. Warfare may also have killed more people than those depicted in the art, as indicated by sites such as Dos Pilas, Aguateca, Cancuen and Chunchucmil which were completely depopulated after war (Normark 2007). One critic points out that the Maya took prisoners for later sacrifice and thus avoided killing them in battle. It is argued that this does not happen in the movie but from my perspective it is very clear that this is what they do. However, the problem is that this practice is a phenomenon usually attributed to the Aztecs, so even researchers blur the context here. People also died in real battles and not only in temples which findings from Cancuen show. Unburied bodies have been found at this site.



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