Mayan civilization stars in Mel Gibson's 'Apocalypto'

Movie expected to renew debate about mysterious culture

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Mel Gibson directs a scene in the movie "Apocalypto," which will be released Dec. 8.
By Virginia Linn, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

In September, models draped in Mayan calendar prints dazzled the runways at Olympus Fashion Week in New York City as part of Nicole Miller's spring 2007 collection, inspired by a trip to the Mayan ruins in Tulum, Mexico.

Last fall, more than 18 million viewers a week watched CBS's "Survivor: Guatemala -- The Maya Empire," as contestants lived amid the age-old ruins.

At Mon Aimee Chocolate in the Strip District, customers each Saturday line up for the shop's special hot chocolate -- spiced with cayenne, chiles or cinnamon -- just as it was served by the ancient Mayas, who invented the decadent brew.

And tourism at Mayan ruins is surging.

More than a thousand years after the Classic Mayas vanished from the magnificent cities they built in the tropical forests of Mexico and Central America, interest in their art, beliefs and traditions has never been higher.

That attention is likely to peak next month when Mel Gibson's $50 million epic "Apocalypto" opens in theaters nationwide. To be released by Disney's Touchstone Pictures on Dec. 8, the R-rated movie (for graphic violence and disturbing images) focuses on the end of the Mayan civilization.

Filmed in Veracruz, Mexico, and completely in the Mayan Yucatec language, the movie tells the story of a peaceful village that is violently conquered by another Mayan tribe. Many of the inhabitants are brutally killed and others captured, destined for mass sacrifice. The plot focuses on one villager, Jaguar Paw, who tries to rescue his family.

It's unknown what impact the controversy ignited from Gibson's anti-Semitic outburst during his drunken driving arrest in July will have on movie attendance. But while some Mayan scholars await the movie with trepidation -- worried over the accuracy of how the early culture will be portrayed -- others see it as an opportunity to spread the word about the Maya.

"For us who love the Maya, anything that comes out at least will be fodder for debate," said Marta Barber, president of the Institute of Maya Studies in Miami. "We always like that.

"We're thankful that somebody is putting the spotlight on the greatest civilization of the Americas before the arrival of the white man."

Beauty among the elite

Modern Maya archaeology began when John L. Stephens and Frederick Catherwood uncovered the ruins when they bushwhacked their way through Mesoamerica between 1839 and 1842.

Yet it's been only in the last 25 years that major gains have been made in deciphering the complicated Mayan hieroglyphics.

"Now we can read the inscriptions, we know the story. We know the names of the kings and queens, and we know what happened," said Elin Danien, research associate with the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia. Today about 90 percent of the system can be read, said Robert Sharer, curator in charge of the museum's Mayan exhibit and renowned Mayan expert.

Rivaled only by the ancient Egyptians, the Mayas reached their zenith in urban construction during the classic period (roughly 250-900 A.D), creating a highly organized system of separate kingdoms throughout Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador.

Their cities, including the towering pyramids, were built without metal tools, beasts of burden or the wheel. The Mayas developed the most sophisticated writing system in the New World and were masters of mathematics, inventing the concept of zero, as well as astrological calendars of astonishing accuracy.

"It was a remarkable civilization in terms of human achievement," Dr. Sharer said.

The Mayan cities were ruled by nobles and kings, and with them came an odd concept of beauty among the elite. A good-looking Mayan aristocrat had a flattened skull or one shaped into a cone. Slightly crossed eyes were held in high esteem. To accomplish these traits, parents pressed their children's heads between boards when they were a few days old and dangled objects in front of their eyes. Teeth often were filed to a point and inlaid with jade or other jewels.

The Mayas worshipped agricultural gods, such as corn or rain gods. There were sacrifices, but not in the mass number that will be depicted in "Apocalypto." Worshippers gave offerings of corn, fruit, game or blood, which was obtained by piercing their own lips, tongue or genitals.

Human sacrifice occurred for major events. Victims typically were children, slaves or war captives. A victim was painted blue and then killed during a ceremony on top of a pyramid, either by being shot by arrows or having his arms and legs held while a priest cut open his chest with a knife and tore out his heart as an offering. Some were beheaded.

The heart "was absolutely the best thing you could give to the gods," said Olivier de Montmollin, professor in the department of anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh who has done research in southern Mexico. "In the Mayan eyes, that wouldn't be like a slasher film. It would be a religious ceremony."

Retreat into jungles

But, of course, the most intriguing mystery of all is why they abandoned their grand cities about 900 A.D. and retreated into the jungles to live. That occurred 500 years before the Spaniards arrived.

Warfare, drought and ecological disaster -- or some combination of these -- have all been cited as causes.

"We'll never have the actual historical facts of what happened, but we think we have a good idea of what happened," said Dr. Sharer, noting that it was a transformation that took 100 years. "It was a process, not a single event."

In an interview with Time magazine in March, Gibson said he became fascinated with the ancient Mayas through his work with the Mirador Basin Project, which aims to preserve a large swath of Guatemalan rain forest -- the largest tract of virgin rain forest in Central America -- and the cradle of Mayan civilization.

He and his co-writer Farhad Safinia discussed research that suggested ecological abuse and war-mongering were major contributors -- occurrences that could parallel conditions today with the threats of global warming and the Iraq war.

"I think Mel Gibson will try to tie this into current anxiety," said Dr. de Montmollin, the Pitt anthropologist. "That's one of the things I've picked up."

Indeed, the Mayas flourished in a jungle forest environment, which is one of the least productive areas of the world for agriculture.

"How did they make the jungle produce this much food?" Dr. de Montmollin asked. "They may have hit a wall in the ninth century, run into terrible environmental disaster."

Today, researchers worry about preserving and protecting what remains of the ancient Mayas. Of all the hundreds if not thousands of sites, a very small percentage has been uncovered or excavated, Dr. Sharer said, and new sites are continually being discovered.

"Certainly more sites have been looted than have been scientifically excavated," he said.

Tourism to the ruins is exploding. With more visitors drawn to the beach resorts as well as to the nearby ruins and other sites, Mexico in June moved up in ranking to become the seventh-most-visited country in the world, according to the World Tourism Organization. It drew 21 million visitors in 2005, and has added foreign and domestic flights and improved access to several ports along the Yucatan. Belize and Guatemala, whose long civil war ended 10 years ago, also are becoming popular destinations.

Dr. Sharer sees the rise of tourism as a double-edged sword. Of the money generated, a small percentage goes to governments to protect and excavate them, but there's more wear and tear on the ancient monuments.

He hopes that interest in the movie can be directed into positive efforts to preserve and protect the sites, which he believes is the No. 1 priority.

Dr. Danien also hopes it will bring focus on the more than 4 million contemporary Mayas, many of whom live in poverty or political unrest. "They didn't disappear. I hope it will trigger more attention to the real people."

Of course, moviegoers who miss "Apocalypto" may have another chance to experience the "end" of the Mayas when the really big event comes up on the winter solstice of Dec. 21, 2012. According to the Mayan calendar, that's the end of its 5,200-year fourth cycle, and the beginning of its fifth cycle.

"This is the end of the world as we know it," said Dr. de Montmollin, according to the Maya calendar, which has generated predictions of major earthquakes and other global disasters.

Hotels around the ruins already are booked, mostly by New Agers who make pilgrimages there for the summer and winter solstices.

But most Mayan scholars scoff at such predictions.

"People who are into such things are always into the end of the world," said Dr. Sharer. "It's so unscientific."

Virginia Linn, Post-Gazette
Temple I at the ancient Mayan city of Tikal, in what is now Guatemala.
Click photo for larger image.
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Virginia Linn can be reached at vlinn@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1662.


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