In this section you find selected Wayeb statements and bulletins about the Association, the European Maya Conference series and issues concerning Maya studies.
17 Sep 2009 Anna Margaretha Hohmann-Vogrin (1946 – 2009)
Wayeb announces with sadness that our friend and colleague Annegrete Hohmann-Vogrin lost her fight against cancer and died on August 28, 2009.
31 Aug 2008 Pierre Robert Colas (1976 – 2008)
16 Jan 2007 Wayeb Statement on Mel Gibson's Apocalpyto
Mel Gibson's latest movie 'Apocalypto' is currently showing in cinemas all over Europe and the US. Although Gibson declaredly just produced a "chase movie" in which he uses pre-Hispanic Maya civilization merely as an example to show what may happen to a society that forgets its values and instead indulges in war, environmental destruction, and violence with "no regard for human life", he generates a very distorted image of the ancient Maya which is historically unfounded.
Several very good reviews and statements which explain the historical and cultural inaccuracies of the movie have already been published (please refer to the Collection of Statements below).
Wayeb would like to use this webspace to collect statements and add comments regarding the inaccurate image of prehispanic Maya culture drawn in 'Apocalypto' and the social consequences that might result from it. In the following you will find a selection of aspects which may be most disturbing to Mayanists.
Inaccuracies from a Mayanist perspective
- The story takes place at the time of the Spanish conquest, but the thematic context is the Maya collapse that occurred roughly half a millenium earlier. The supposedly Classic Maya representation indiscriminately lumps material culture and architectural styles from 2000 years blending everything from the Maya Preclassic to Aztec culture.
- The "urban-folk" contrast between the bad-inhuman urban Maya and the peacful-human village Maya that is drawn in the movie is utterly unfounded: the rural population did not live in randomly placed huts in the jungle, but cultivated and shaped their environment and their space. They were subjects of polities that may have formed part of larger territorial complexes and hierarchies. Even single buildings of rural settlements were arranged in well defined patterns and surrounded by cultivated land.
- Village people were not peaceful hunters but the producers of agricultural goods for their own political elites who lived in the minor and major centers. Wars were waged between polities for resources, tribute, and political dominance - and not for the sole purpose of capturing sacrificial victims.
- Blood sacrifice and human sacrifices were part of a complex religious belief system of renewal and rebirth. Captured political elites of hostile polities were indeed beheaded, but these decapitations took place during elaborated ritual pageants in which mythic events related to creation and renewal were re-enacted as part of victory celebrations. There is certainly no evidence in Classic Maya culture for mass heart sacrifice as it is depicted in 'Apocalypto'.
- The jungle chase reveals not only the seven signs of the "Maya apocalypse" (the death of a young noble, a black jaguar, a snake, a waterfall, a bee hive, a trap, and a Spanish ship), but also the inhumanity of the chasers: they leave the dead and the dying to rot wherever they fall.
- Cultural achievements and inventions of the ancient Maya are largely unmentioned or even denied: the evolution of a totally independent writing system; the existence of a complex calendar systems which is based on arithmetic calculation which included the "zero"; or their advanced astronomical knowledge - certainly, the Classic as well as the Postclassic Maya knew how to calculate the occurrence of a solar eclipse with precision - it is unlikely that they were ever surprised by an unpredicted eclipse, nor that they would have taken it as a sign of the satisfaction of their bloodthirsty god.
- The film is held in Yukatek Maya - however, totally unintelligible for any native Yukatek speaker. Nobody would ever dare to shoot an entire movie in English with actors who are not actually capable of speaking the language - to use Yukatek just to "evoke" feelings of authenticity in the Western viewers, is a degradation of Maya languages as "exotic babbling".
The Aftermath of a Hollywood movie - justifying racism and discouraging research
The repercussion of the movie is worrisome: it is showing in cinemas now, it is going to be released on DVD shortly thereafter, it will stick in the mind of the public as Gibson's film about the Maya, and will be sought as a source of reference for many years to come. The images will travel along with the tourists who will visit the places like Tikal or Chichén Itzá.
It does not matter whether Gibson creates a invented image of the Maya as an analogy, too many viewers will understand it without reflection as a movie about the Classic Maya. And it also does not matter whether Gibson claims historical accuracy or not - the fact that the entire film is allegedly in Yukatek Maya, gives the impression of historical accuracy.
It is certainly not historically accurate that the 'apocalyptic' violence in the movie ends with the arrival of the Spanish missionaries who seem to bring peace and civilization to the savage Maya: revelation and a new beginning. The subtext may read as a justification for 500 years of colonialism and Christian mission. It may furthermore read as a justification for recent, current, and future incidents of violent oppression and racism a contemporary Maya population has to face.
The Maya are not an extinct people. Present-day Maya in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, and El Salvador are only just beginning to rebuild a cultural identity by referring to the cultural achievements of the ancient Maya. Researchers and scholars from the field of Maya Studies are contributing to this process by providing them with information about their history and origin.
In this context, the Hollywood portrait of the Maya as brute and primitive people - as well as the implicit justification of colonialism and Christian mission - are likely to be understood as an insult. The historical inaccuracies in 'Apocalypto' may launch an intensified debate about the right of the Maya to be portrayed with historical accuracy, but it may also simply result in suspicion and distrust, which may also affect all levels of research about Maya culture.
Why do the ancient Maya need to be portrayed at the expense of historical accuracy?
Classic Maya history and the hard facts known about cultural and environmental circumstances of the Maya collapse would provide rich material for a sophisticated and thrilling story. It is tragic that the chance was missed to make a good and proper film about a truly fascinating culture.
Collection of Statements
IAE Bonn English / Spanish
Elizabeth Graham & Jim Aimers (UCL)
Elizabeth Graham (in The Guardian)
Michael Smith (in Newsweek)
Robert Sitler (in Community Voice)
Traci Ardren (in Archaeology)
Zachary X. Hruby (on Mesoweb)