Mel and the Maya: A savage take on rich civilisation

By Felipe Fernández-Armesto, the author of numerous history books (THE TIMES, 03/01/07):

History has the best stories, and Maya history is particularly rich in them. Mel Gibson could have made a movie of the adventures of Siyaj Kak, the 4th-century kingmaker, who crossed mountains and jungles to found a new dynasty in one of the greatest Maya cities; or of rulers, more than half a millennium later, ritually piercing tongue or penis for sacrificial blood to legitimate their wars or postpone the collapse of their kingdoms. Or he could have made a film about Gaspar Antonio Xiu, the 16th-century native sage, who, at first, loved the Spanish conquistadores, then recoiled from them; or Gonzalo Guerrero, a Spaniard who turned against his own people and became a leader of Maya resistance; or of the kingdom of Petén Itza, which defended its independence until 1697.

Hollywood, however, is incapable of escaping its own clichés. Amazingly, for such a young art form, cinema seems already ossified. Mel Gibson’s new production, Apocalypto, which is released this week, is another routine pastiche, ostensibly about the Maya, in which goodies face baddies. It could as well be set in the Wild West or Middle Earth.

Civilisation, says the movie’s shout-line, is vulnerable to self-destruction. But the screenplay communicates a different message, of a struggle between noble and ignoble forms of savagery. It presents a picture of two kinds of Maya. On the one hand, there are nice, cuddly, ecologically correct, forest-dwelling Maya, who love children and spend their time hunting, storytelling and playing tedious practical pranks. On the other, there are nasty, fascistic, morally degraded, city-dwelling Maya, who hate the forest, massacre and enslave its people, deplete nature and glut their gods with the blood of human sacrifice.

In the end, the forest-dwellers have more endurance. The cities are, like ours, demoralised by demagogues and self-condemned by greed. To that extent, the film makes a valid point: the forest Maya are still there in their traditional habitat, practising their ancient way of life, whereas the ancient Maya cities are one with Nineveh and Tyre. If you want your society to survive, unchanged, for thousands of years, stick to hunting and gathering.

This is an original take. Most scholarly literature exalts the city Maya, ignoring the forest-dwellers, concentrating on the “classic age” between the 3rd and 10th centuries AD, when gleaming, gaudy cities rose above rainforests. The subtle, supple writing-system of their builders was used to keep records so detailed that we know more, for instance, about the Macaw dynasty of Copán in 5th-century Honduras than of many European kingdoms of the time. The Maya used numbers, including zero, to make astronomical calculations extending over millions of years.

Their artists produced work of breathtaking quality: carving as fine as filigree in jade so hard that no material save itself could make any impression it. They deeply undercut portraits in soapstone. They moulded lavish censers and pots. Their murals glowed with the colours of fresh blood and human sacrifice. They painted in many styles, from dashing realism to exact geometry.

Their world was of competing city-states ruled by warrior-kings, who communed with gods through dream-like visions, induced by loss of blood and narcotic inhalants. Dense populations farmed molluscs and fish in narrow canals dug between raised earth platforms for the cultivation of squashes, beans, chillies, breadnut trees and, above all, maize.

In the 9th and 10th centuries, for unknown reasons — wars, perhaps, revolutions, ecological recklessness — the lowland cities became empty or sparsely inhabited ruins. Maya civilisation retreated to less precarious environments in the Guatemalan uplands or the limestone hills of Yucatán, in cities that defied the arid climate and dense bush. The new elites downscaled their ambitions. They made almost no epigraphic inscriptions and few sculptures in stone. They spent less on luxurious artworks and otiose scholarship. The Maya were, however, the same people, with a heritage of myths and memories that went back to the classic period. Their bark-paper books recorded the same calendar and the same mixture of history and prophecy.

When the Spaniards arrived, a Maya renaissance was under way. In coastal Yucatán, new cities were arrayed for commerce and convenience, with streets rather than plazas and ceremonial causeways. In Guatemala, cities looked more traditional, albeit on a smaller scale than their forbears. The conflicts that shed so much Maya blood were not so much terror-raids on forest Maya by city Maya, such as Gibson depicts, but wars between rival cities and dynasties. For indigenous chroniclers, the Spanish conquest seemed less traumatic than their own long-remembered, mutually resented massacres.

Spanish priests did their best to expunge memory in the hope of eliminating paganism. But the Spaniards could disrupt but not rupture the continuities of Maya history. Leaving the forest Maya largely untouched, they refashioned the cities and re-educated their people without ever fully imposing their own culture. Resistance flared sporadically. The Mayas’ sense of identity, most of their languages, and many traditions — lightly re-dressed in Christian garb — survive to this day.

Mel Gibson holds their story up as a fable about self-destruction. It is an even more suitable lesson: a tale of resilience in danger, downscaling in disaster and adaptation to survive.