By Fr. George Welzbacher
January 7, 2007
Filled with violence, Mel Gibson's new film "Apocalypto" is not a film for young children; it might trouble them with nightmares. But for teenagers and adults and perhaps for the precocious middle-school youngster-parents can best judge the sensitivities of their children-the film transmits a message that is paradoxically pro-life! Right from the start the audience is put on notice that there is indeed a message when an epigraph appears on the screen drawn from Will Durant's massive history of the civilization of the West to the effect that civilizations that have collapsed under attack from outside generally had previously grown rotten from within. As the film unwinds we watch as the villagers belonging to a primitive tribe of hunters and gatherers living deep within the jungle are being attacked and taken prisoner by a raiding army from a much more sophisticated urban culture, that of the Mayas of central America, just before the arrival of the European conquistadors. The Mayas (who could boast of an elaborate system of writing, impressive achievements in architecture and art, and the world's most efficient calendar to date) had also, like the Aztecs farther to the north, systematized the brutal and ritualistic mass murder of helpless members of peripheral tribes. The brutal murder of the helpless (including ripping the victims' hearts out while the victims were still alive and then hurling their severed heads down the steps of lofty pyramids) had brutalized and dehumanized the murderers themselves. That Mr. Gibson is suggesting an analogy with America's legalized murder of more than forty million helpless unborn children is confirmed in an early scene in which, as the villagers are dancing around their fires in celebration of a successful hunt, the protagonist places his ear against the bosom of his pregnant wife and exclaims: "I can hear my son dancing!" Not "a fetus " or "a clump of tissue " but "my son"!
Further details from this extraordinary film I will not disclose. But if you see "Apocalypto" let me know if you agree that this is not just a stirring and beautifully photographed high suspense film but it is also a parable with an admonition for an America that is sowing the seeds of destruction by its calloused collusion in the slaughter of the unborn.
For a parallel comment on the pre-Columbian culture of the Mayas may I cite an op-ed article from the January 2nd issue of The New York Times. The article was written by an anthropologist specializing in the pre-Columbian urban civilizations of Central and North America.
A Past That Makes Us Squirm
By Craig Childs
A few years back while traveling in the Sierra Madre Occidental of northern Mexico, I came upon a canyon packed with cliff dwellings no one had lived in since before the time of Christopher Columbus. On the ground were discarded artifacts, pieces of frayed baskets, broken pottery and hundreds of desiccated corn cobs-the ruins of an ancient civilization.
I reached down to pick up what I thought was a dry gourd, and instead found myself cradling the skull of a human child. As I turned it in my hands, I noticed a deliberate hole in in the back of the skull, directly above the spine. The skull was not cracked around the hole, which means the child had most likely been alive when a spike of some other implement had been slammed into his or her head from behind.
This is not the only skull like this. Excavations from elsewhere in northern Mexico have turned up other children killed the same way, human sacrifices to an ancient water deity, their bodies buried under pre-Columbian ball courts or at the foot of pillars in important rooms.
With knowledge of such widespread ferocity, I recently saw Met 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 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.
How do we rectify the age-old perception of noble and peaceful native Americans with the reality that at times violence was coordinated on a scale never before witnessed by humanity? The answer is simple. We don't....