The Heart Of Apocalypto
APOCALYPTO is the first major Hollywood action-adventure to be set amidst the great
Mayan civilization of Mesoamerica. But just who were the Maya? Like detectives sifting
through a vast mystery, today's archeologists are trying to come up with answers to that
question from the fabled pyramids, buried cities and intriguing artifacts they left behind. For
though they were once the mightiest civilization in the Americas, neither wealth, nor power,
nor brilliant engineering could save the Mayans from a devastating societal collapse.
The vast Maya homeland once spanned five modern countries-Mexico, Guatemala,
Belize, Honduras and El Salvador-and flourished in three distinct periods: Pre-Classic Maya,
Classic Maya and Post Classic Maya, all the way from 2400 B.C. to the 15th Century A.D. We
know they were an advanced society who created intricate art, mastered
their own writing system, had a profound understanding of astronomy and were skilled
farmers, artisans and architects whose urban cities flourished in the rainforest. But we also
know they engaged in brutal practices, fomented war and that their complex society devolved
into violence, slavery and chaos.
To learn more about who the Maya were and why their sophisticated civilization declined
and disappeared, Mel Gibson, Farhad Safinia and the entire production of APOCALYPTO
worked closely with several archeologists, including one of the film's key consultants: Dr.
Richard D. Hansen, a modern-day explorer who has been excavating a massive network of 26
ancient Maya cities entombed under centuries of jungle growth in Guatemala. Many books and textbook rentals are available on the subject of the Maya, but working with an archaeologist whose study of their culture on a daily basis was incredibly helpful in bringing the world of the Maya to the big screen.
For Hansen, the allure of APOCALYPTO wasn't just the film's visceral re-creation of what
it might have felt like to live in the time of the Maya-but its
exploration of how such a society
of such extraordinary power self-destructed. "I felt Mel Gibson was really interested in not
only the reality of this civilization but the reality of the stresses that were key to its end. It's a
story that needs to be told. If a society doesn't learn from its history, it may be forced to repeat
it," warns Hansen.
Hansen emphasized to Gibson just how accomplished Maya society had become during the
Classic period. "The fascinating thing about the Maya is they were able to develop societal
complexity at a new level in the Western Hemisphere," explains Hansen. "By the Classic
period, huge cities were thriving everywhere, and a series of smaller cities scattered around
them were feeding and supplying these larger cities with the commodities they needed."
Indeed, part of the key to the civilization's longevity was their agricultural success. "The
Maya cities were green cities," notes Hansen. "They had every available resource for
cultivation. They were raising corn, squash, beans, cotton, cacao and a range of tropical fruits.
And when you can eat, you can focus on other things like astronomy, mathematics, music, art,
warfare and government."
At the height of the civilization, the Maya were especially focused on trying to understand
time and the very meaning of life. "The cycle of time became very carefully woven and
engraved into their ideology, cosmology and behavior. The cycle of life and the cycle of time
began to be a pattern that was observed in the natural and spiritual world," Hansen notes.
et coupled with their early fascination with science was a belief in superstition and the
influence of invisible forces. They believed the world was ruled by powerful deities who
maintained order-but only if human beings behaved properly and observed the prescribed
rituals and offerings. Failure to do so, or so the high priests and kings warned, would result in
vengeance from the wrathful gods in the form of disease, pestilence, crop failure, drought and
other natural disasters.
Powerful Mayan priests were said to b
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