December 5, 2006—Before he became Mel Gibson's lead consultant on the movie Apocalypto, Maya expert Richard Hansen spent decades exploring the ancient civilization in Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize (map to print: Maya cities on Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula).
In this archival footage Hansen excavates a tomb in Guatemala's lost city of El Mirador (map), a thriving center of the mysterious Preclassic Maya period, which lasted from about 1800 B.C. to about A.D. 250. He is searching for the tomb of King Great Fiery Jaguar Paw—perhaps the namesake of Apocalypto's hero, a commoner called simply Jaguar Paw.
Gibson's fictional action movie, which opens Friday, takes place in the Classic Maya period (A.D. 250-900), which at its height boasted more than 40 cities. The great metropolis of Apocalypto may be modeled on Preclassic El Mirador as well as the Classic city of Tikal.