Mel Gibson and the Demise of Civilization

“Forget about the movie,” Gustavo told Denise.

She ignored him.

“They took the heart out, and it was still beating,” she said. “And they held it up like this!” She raised one pale, triumphant arm above her head.

“Let the movie go,” we said in chorus, my mother and I now joining Gustavo. He was our portly, scholarly guide to the ancient Mayan city of Copán, an urban center of 24,000 people during its heyday, which was sometime between A.D. 400 and 800. He carried a stick with a bird feather attached to one end to point out archeological details, and he had the slightly aggrieved air of a man who had to be patient a lot.

Gustavo was unhappy with Mel Gibson and, in particular, with what he referred to as “that stupid movie,” Apocalypto. In case you missed it, the 2006 film was a revisionist and gruesomely violent retelling of history. No surprise there, but this movie happened to be set among the ancient Maya. There were beheadings, impalings, and human sacrifices performed by drug-addled priests. Not that the real Mayans didn’t perform the odd human sacrifice. But Gustavo was at pains to contextualize.

At the entrance to Copán, my parents and I had teamed up with Diane and Denise, two middle-aged women from New York City, both with strong Brooklyn accents. Denise, who had short black hair and wore bright red lipstick, was a Gibson fan. To Gustavo’s consternation, she kept asking where the sacrifices were performed.

And now, finally, we were in the middle of the Grand Plaza, once quite a hub, open to all members of the ancient Copán public and used for both commerce and worship. There was a small pyramid at the center of the plaza, and steles scattered around, each one intricately carved in honor of one king or another. And there, right in front of us, was a large stone object made for the express purpose of sacrificing humans.

It was dome-shaped, about 4 feet wide and 3 feet tall, with a depression hollowed out of the top just big enough to cup a human head. Two channels ran down the sides to drain the blood away. Gustavo grabbed my arm and told me to lean backward over the dome with my head in the depression—kind of comfy, if you must be sacrificed—and made as though to cut off my head with his feather-stick. That was when Denise got excited and started recounting the Apocalypto sacrifice scene, thrusting her hand into the air as though holding a beating heart. “And the people were still alive!” she said.

She reluctantly followed as the rest of us moved away across the plaza to the city’s ball court. Relief-carved macaw heads decorated the walls. Mayan ball courts, it turns out, were not for playing ball in the Western sense of a game, as an earlier generation of archeologists believed. “The idea of the ball ceremony was not to please a human audience, but to please the gods,” Gustavo explained. Performed correctly, the ball “game,” conducted by specially trained young men, was believed to make the sun and moon come up on time.

Today, though much of ancient Copán still lies buried, you can wander among its carvings and pyramids, tombs and temples, halls of government and homes, visualizing the bright-colored stucco that once adorned them. Until the 19th century, however, they were completely invisible. Some time in the 800s, the civilization of the Classic Maya period began a collapse so complete that by the time the Spaniards began to arrive, there was no trace of it. Descendants of the ancient Maya scattered and survived, but the great painted cities, with their pyramids and temples, were gone, swallowed whole by the jungle. The last date found on a Mayan monument corresponds to the year 909, as though time just stopped one day.

Archeologists still debate what happened. It’s clear, though, that environmental degradation played a role in the collapse. In the Copán valley in particular, studies show that as the population grew, the people stripped the hillsides of trees. Major soil erosion preceded the city’s downfall. Copán also suffered droughts, which may have been partly brought on by the deforestation. The Mayans cut down the trees to plant corn, and for firewood to burn limestone, a key ingredient in their bright pigments. Why didn’t they pull themselves out of this ecological tailspin? Presumably they could see the trees disappearing and the mud running down the hills. In Collapse: How Societies Choose To Fail or Succeed, Jared Diamond suggests that the elites who might have led the way out of this mess had insulated themselves from the problems of the people. So as the poor began to suffer—infant mortality was probably 50 percent toward the end—the kings kept demanding tribute.

We stood in front of the hieroglyphic stairway, an inscription covering 72 steps that make up one face of the acropolis. It’s the longest hieroglyphic inscription found in the Americas, and no one has completely deciphered it. Archeologists know that it tells a history of ancient Copán and that it was created by a ruler named Smoke Shell in 753, when the city was already in decline. When the staircase is eventually decoded, maybe Smoke Shell will have something more to tell us about his doomed metropolis.

In the meantime, Honduras is still being deforested. Central America has lost more than 70 percent of its forest cover since 1960, mostly to make way for cattle ranches, sugar-cane fields, and coffee plantations. Between 1990 and 2005, Honduras lost 10,567 square miles of forest—an area about the size of Massachusetts. But that’s just another scary environmental statistic. Taken together, all the bad news is enough to make you turn to irrational beliefs about planetary control. Or to mindless entertainment.

Gustavo began to tell us the story of the Mayan codices, manuscripts that could help decode the hieroglyphics. Denise cut in.

“Did they sacrifice people up there?”

Gustavo sighed. “Yes, and then they let the head roll down the steps and gave it to the victim’s son,” he said. “Too much Mel Gibson for you.”