"Apocalypto" Tortures the Facts, Expert Says

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
December 8, 2006

Mel Gibson says Apocalypto, his new movie set during the collapse of the Maya Empire, should not be seen as a historical document.

At least one expert couldn't agree more.

Though it gave rise to awe-inspiring architecture and surprisingly advanced science, the Maya civilization—which thrived in what are now Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, and Honduras—began declining around A.D. 800 (map of Central and North America).

Archaeological evidence points to a multitude of factors that could have led to this decline, including internecine warfare, the loss of trade routes, drought, and disease.

But before the fall, the Maya ruled the region from seats of power in dozens of cities. It is this so-called Classic period [A.D. 250 to 900], and especially its end, that the film most resembles, though no date is specified in Apocalypto.

To find out what the Maya Empire was really like, Stefan Lovgren checked in with Zachary Hruby, a Maya expert at the University of California, Riverside.

(Related video: "'Apocalypto' Exaggerates Maya Violence, Expert Says.")

In Apocalypto, the hero, Jaguar Paw, lives in an idyllic hunting village set deep in the jungle. Would this have been typical?

During Classic times the Maya were an agricultural people. They hunted, but wild game was a relatively small percentage of the diet, and meat in general may have been seen as more of a luxury item.

At that time, it appears that almost all the forest was maintained, manicured, and owned by somebody, and [the fact] that you have a Maya group [in Apocalypto] that doesn't practice agriculture is virtually impossible.

Would Maya villagers have lived in stick huts, as they do in Apocalypto?

Although houses may have been of perishable materials, they had stone foundations and were often built in cleared plazas but certainly not in the wild jungle. House lots were planned and intensively managed spaces where fruits, vegetables, and medicinal plants were grown and where some domesticated animals were raised.

Continued on Next Page >>


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