Mel Gibson says Apocalypto, his new movie set during the collapse of the Maya Empire, should not be seen as a historical document.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.
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: In Search of the Lost Empire of the Maya)
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.
[In Maya artwork] women are traditionally shown in conservative dress, in huipiles, which covered their breasts. Also, ceramic vessels were ubiquitous.
The villagers are attacked and captured by men from a Maya metropolis. While the male captives are to be used in sacrificial rituals, the women are sold as slaves.
There's no evidence that innocent women and men were harvested from the hinterlands and sold into slavery or to provide flesh for sacrifice. Generally captives appear to have been taken during war between polities.
Jaguar Paw and the other captives who are brought to the city have never heard of such a place.
During the Classic period Maya settlement was so widespread that you lived at least within 10 to 20 kilometers [6 to 12 miles] of a large community. Pyramids were never more than 20 kilometers away from anywhere in the Maya world.
There was a great sense of political connectedness between different groups. Even small villages in the hinterlands of large cities were connected to some political center.
The city is depicted as one of both great wealth—with a lot of people wearing jade jewelry—and great poverty.
Jade was usually reserved for royal families. Even in cases of relatively impoverished sites … the king would wear false jade beads made of painted ceramic, indicating that the veneer of wealth was crucial no matter what the reality.
Jade was the symbol of royal power and wealth. You don't find these goods in commoner graves and even very rarely in nonroyal elite burials.
The Maya civilization is impressive for a number of reasons—a fully developed writing system, amazing architecture, and a complex political system. But life expectancy was low.
Near the time of the collapse, people were generally undernourished, which is reflected in their bones, and they had bad problems with their teeth.
The city features dazzling pyramids but is also seen to be in a great state of disrepair.
It may be modeled after Tikal in Guatemala, a great Mayan city. But it is more of a combination of architectural features from both the southern and northern lowlands on the Yucatán Peninsula.
If Apocalypto is meant to to show the terminal Classic—the Classic Maya collapse—then it may have looked in a state of disrepair. The decline in social organization may have made the upkeep of public buildings a difficult economic and political endeavor.
Jaguar Paw and the other captives are to be sacrificed on a column-shaped stone to appease the gods and avert a drought.
This type of sacrifice resembles one that may have been carried out by the Mexica [an Aztec-related group] in central Mexico.
The Aztecs [who presided over an empire in Mexico in the 15th and 16th centuries] used a column-shaped stone on which the captive would be splayed out, back arched, allowing the sacrificer to more easily access the heart from beneath the rib cage to make a heart sacrifice.
This type of sacrifice is unknown within the Maya area.
In the movie hundreds of people appear to be sacrificed at once.
The Aztecs are known to have sacrificed large numbers of people, though according to the archaeological record, we are unsure of how many would be sacrificed at one time.
There are no data to support that the Maya carried out sacrifice on such a large scale.
The evidence we have suggests that sacrifice was a very personal thing, and so even the captives were personal objects. Even after death, the bones of those captives were owned [by the sacrificer].
Another form of [nonlethal] sacrifice to the Maya is auto-sacrifice, or bloodletting, which was carried out by males by perforating the penis and by women who would pull ropes through their tongues. This blood was used in ancestor veneration and other rituals.
The movie suggests that the Maya relished torturing their captives.
The captives the Maya wanted were the elites from opposing polities, because they represented competition.
Capture, humiliation, and torture of an elite warrior meant usurpation of their goods and resources. The Maya didn't necessarily relish torture and violence, but they relished making their political opponents suffer.
Fingernails were torn out, genitalia and breasts exposed, and starvation was common.
In the movie the king is shown as a bystander to two other individuals during the sacrificial ritual.
Most monuments depict the king as the central figure—dancing, bloodletting, scattering incense.
The king was the one who supposedly conducted rituals in front of a large audience. He played a major ceremonial role.
The Maya kings were seen as potent mediums in terms of communicating with their own ancestors, and the king would also impersonate deities. By doing so, the king could replay important mythological scenes that connected to events that were happening in the city at the time.
It was a combination of religion and politics, but not in the sense that we think of an Egyptian pharaoh as a living god.
A solar eclipse plays a pivotal part in the movie.
There are hieroglyphs to suggest that the Maya observed the eclipse.
The Maya calendar supposedly ends in 2012, and people have hypothesized that [the Maya thought] the world will end at that time. But even in Mayan creation mythology, there is no explicit connection between the end of the Maya calendar and the end of the world.
The movie suggests that there were several reasons for the Maya collapse.
There are many causes for the fall of that form of Classic-period social organization. Multiple historical, economic, and environmental factors were in play simultaneously at that time.
It was a time of particularly bad drought. There was heavy deforestation. The ancient Maya overused their land and were no longer producing the amount of food they needed.
At the same time, populations were going through the roof. There were too many people, and the pie simply wasn't big enough.
There was also increased warfare in some areas. Royals were trying to kill off each other. This appeared to have occurred over a 100- to 150-year period, so it wasn't one single event. And it occurred largely in the southern Maya lowlands.
In some areas in the north, the construction of pyramids and other buildings continued unimpeded [after A.D. 900].
It is important to remember that the Maya didn't disappear. They reorganized. So we should think of it more as a social reorganization than a collapse.
By the time the Spaniards arrived, the social problems associated with the Classic period collapse, as portrayed in Apocalypto, did not exist.
Spoiler warning: Readers who would like to keep the ending of Apocalypto a surprise should stop reading here.
In terms of historical accuracy, the arrival of the Spaniards is a problem in itself, right?
The movie ends with the Spaniards coming [which didn't happen in Mexico until long after the Classic Maya collapse]. So basically we're looking at a 400-year difference in architectural style and history.
The movie is mixing two vastly different time periods. This Classic form of kingship ended around 900 A.D.