Tag Archives: Post-Classic Maya

Addressing Some Recent Criticism of our Eclipse Day Article

Here at the Archaeology in Tennessee blog, I rarely get any criticisms of the main articles written for the blog—and if a criticism does come this way—it never shows up as a written comment beneath the piece in question. It usually shows up as a private comment to me by e-mail or telephone. Our eclipse day post entitled NASA Canon of Solar Eclipses for Archaeologists generated a small amount of that discreet private criticism. I am taking some time to address it herein so my readers will understand why I said some of the things I said.  Here is my statement that drew all of the criticism:

Mel Gibson tried to capture such an important moment in his poorly done and culturally insensitive 2006 movie entitled “Apocalypto.” One of the settings in this motion picture is an imaginary Mayan city in Mesoamerica at the time of European first contact.

The factors in this statement that drew the criticism were the phrases “poorly done and culturally insensitive” and “imaginary Mayan city.”  The criticisms came from folks who know quite a bit about American archaeology.  They wondered why I would ever say such derogatory things about this movie because they thought it was a wonderful cinematic triumph.

The movie Apocalypto was released to American theaters in 2006, which is going on 12 years ago. It was attended by many ordinary Americans and by many archaeologists, including archaeologists like me who have undergraduate and graduate training in Mesoamerican archaeology. Even we archaeologists know that movie makers take some artistic license with prehistory and history in the story lines of motion pictures, such that one rarely sees complete prehistoric or historic realism and accuracy in a movie. Given even that basic understanding going-in, the movie Apocalypto drew a firestorm of public criticism and outrage from archaeologists, particularly those who specialize in Mayanist archaeology.

This criticism and outrage came for many reasons. For example, the prehistoric and historic cultural timelines in the movie were mish-mashed to give the false impression that the height of Classic Mayan culture, which actually ended circa 800 A.D., was somehow still fully underway at the time of first European contact.  The Aztec practice of massive human sacrifice, as related to us by the first Spanish conquistadors in Mexico, was conflated with Mayan culture to give the false impression that the ancient Maya and their historic-era Mayan descendants were just as bloodthirsty in their religious ceremonies. Finally, the Mayan people are portrayed as depraved, heartless, heathen savages more worthy of the streets of Sodom and Gomorrah than the streets of ancient Tikal—and to make it all worse—in a manner that failed to take sufficient and accurate stock of a long, rich, and highly detailed Mayan cultural tapestry dominated by great lineal rulers, craftsmen, astronomers, mathematicians, artists, scribes, and so forth. In short, many of the people who know the most about Mayan prehistory and history were royally pissed by what Mel Gibson had done in this movie—and they let everyone know it in the news media back in double-ought six.

If you would like to read just a small sample of the many detailed criticisms of Apocalypto from 12 years ago, you may do so by clicking on the following safe links:

‘Apocalypto’ A Distorted view of Maya History

“Apocalypto” Tortures the Facts, Expert Says

Is “Apocalypto” Pornography?

Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto”: A Critical Analysis

Finally, as mentioned to my critics, I enjoyed the movie Apocalypto too, primarily because one rarely sees anything even quasi-archaeological about North America, Central America, and their indigenous cultures in modern movies. Just like everyone else, I was anxious to see how Mel Gibson would portray Mayan people and culture in this movie—and my feet pitter-pattered into it with no illusions about the degree of artistic license movie makers can take with prehistory and history. Nonetheless, throughout Apocalypto, I was more than just a little overwhelmed by the relentless violence and cruelty, and the archaeologist within me was biting his lip far more than just once or twice at the assorted archaeological and cultural nonrealities that were filling my eyes. Therefore, the phraseology in my eclipse post was a brief attempt, en passant, to capture all of the past negative archaeological bluster that surrounded the release of this controversial motion picture.