Craig Childs: A Past That Makes Us Squirm (Apocalypto)

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[Craig Childs is the author of the forthcoming “House of Rain: Tracking a Vanished Civilization Across the American Southwest.”]

... I recently saw Mel Gibson’s movie “Apocalypto,” which deals with the gore of the Mayan civilization. I had heard that the movie’s violence was wildly out of control. But even as I winced at many of the scenes, as a writer and researcher in ancient American archaeology, I found little technical fault with the film other than ridiculous Hollywood ploys and niggling archaeological details.

Indeed, parts of the archaeological record of the Americas read like a war-crimes indictment, with charred skeletons stacked like cordwood and innumerable human remains missing heads, legs and arms. In the American Southwest, which is my area of research, human tissue has been found cooked to the insides of kitchen jars and stained into a ceramic serving ladle. A grinding stone was found full of crushed human finger bones. A sample of human feces came up containing the remains of a cannibal’s meal.

It could be argued that “Apocalypto” dehumanizes Native Americans, turning their ancestors into savage monsters, but I think it does the opposite. Oppressed hunter-gatherers in the movie are presented as people with the same, universal emotions all humans share. And urban Mayans are portrayed as politically and religiously savvy, having made of themselves a monumental, Neolithic empire, something more akin to ancient Egypt than the trouble-free agrarians who come to most people’s minds when they think of native America.

To further shatter that popular notion of Native Americans, there’s the scene in which a turquoise-jeweled priest stands atop a staggering temple yanking out one beating human heart after the next. That’s an image that nearly every archaeologist working in Central America has played in his or her head many times, only now it’s on the big screen for everyone to see.

Being told by screenwriters and archaeologists that their ancestors engaged in death cults tends to make many Native Americans uneasy. In Arizona, Hopi elders turn their eyes to the ground when they hear about their own past stained with overt brutality. The name Hopi means people of peace, which is what they strive to be. Meanwhile, excavators keep digging up evidence of cannibalism and ritualized violence among their ancestors....

If “Apocalypto” has a fault, it is not with its brutality, but with us in the audience who cringe, thinking the Mayans little more than a barbaric people. The fault lies in our misunderstanding of a complicated history, thinking we can lump a whole civilization into a single response and walk out of the movie saying, “That was disgusting.”

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