NMSU branding

New Mexico State University

New Mexico State University

News Center

Historical accuracy of Mel Gibson's new movie disputed

Lisa Lucero, an associate professor of anthropology at New Mexico State University, said she and other archaeologists are concerned about Mel Gibson's treatment of the Maya in his new movie, "Apocalypto."

Lisa Lucero, NMSU anthropology professor, gets ready to explore a Maya cave in central Belize with archaeologist Cameron Griffith in summer 2005. (Courtesy photo)

"The classic Maya really didn't go in for mass sacrifice. That was the Aztecs," Lucero said in the June 28 edition of "USA Today." Her comments were based on a brief online film clip and a "Time" magazine story that was published earlier this year.

"Out of the hundreds of Maya centers that are found throughout Central America, only a few show evidence of violence," Lucero said in another interview.

Lucero agreed with another archaeologist, David Webster of Penn State University, who said the film's shooting locale in Mexico is not the classic Maya homeland. Webster also said the language used in the film is modern-day Yucatec and not ancient Maya.

Even though several differences existed between the Maya, who abandoned their centers in southeast Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Belize by A.D. 900, and the Aztecs, who did not rise to power until 1428 in Mexico, many similarities existed between these Mesoamerican societies that may prompt non-scholars to attribute characteristics or traits of one civilization to the other, Lucero said. Rain gods were of huge importance to the Maya and Aztecs as were water, maize, rubber, cacao and cotton, she added.

Even so, she and other archaeologists are concerned about the overall treatment of all ancient civilizations, not just by Hollywood, but elsewhere as well.

"A lot of non-scholars believe they have the right to write about the Maya and that has been the case throughout history," Lucero said. "They will write in a spiritual or New Age sense or in some other sense that's not academic. That's what is frustrating."

She said regardless of whether she likes the movie, she hopes Gibson's film will spark interest in people wanting to learn more about the Maya.

"Apocalypto" is scheduled for release Dec. 8.

Lucero's expertise on the Maya has been attracting attention and continues to do so. Her book, "Water and Ritual: The Rise and Fall of Classic Maya Rulers," was published by the University of Texas Press in Austin in April 2006. In the book, she takes a cross-cultural approach in examining the roles of ritual and water in political systems.

"Every ruler is associated with prosperity," Lucero said. "If the dams broke in China and flooded the fields, it was believed the emperor lost the mandate of heaven, their mandate of rule. In ancient Egypt, the hieroglyphic records focused on three major things: royal life, the life of the gods and the height of the annual flood of the Nile. That was critical. You just needed a certain amount to make sure one had enough drinking water, for the livestock and for the fields. Not enough resulted in famine, but too much destroyed their crops. There was always this balance."

Lucero has just finished co-editing a book with Barbara W. Fash, "Precolumbian Water Management: Ideology, Ritual, and Power." Fash is director of the Corpus of Maya Hieroglyphic Inscriptions at the Peabody Museum at Harvard University.

She will contribute a chapter to a UNESCO project that involves scholars from around the world who write about a particular ancient or prehistoric society, discussing the strengths and weaknesses of the different water management systems in these societies, and applying lessons learned from the past to present issues and concerns.

Lucero was interviewed by The History Channel for a nationally televised program, "The Real Tomb Hunters: Snakes, Curses and Booby Traps," that aired in January.