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Did “Apocalypto” Really Happen?

Did “Apocalypto” Really Happen?

The Mayas . . . Then and Now


Apocalypto-MelGibsonApocalypto is a spectacular movie about the decline of the Maya Civilization that was directed by Mel Gibson in 2006.  It was the first “mainstream” movie in the United States to have a script entirely in an indigenous language – Yucatec Maya.  The movie’s portrayal of Maya costumes and the “nitty gritty” sections of their cities was extraordinary.   Most pre-industrial cities were filthy due to the lack of water systems, sewers and organized garbage removal.  Apocalypto accurately shows that seldom seen truth.  Gibson employed Mexican anthropologists and art historians to insure the authenticity of the Maya costumes and architecture.  The movie’s buildings are based on those at Tikal in Guatemala.

apocalypto5The plot of the movie revolves around the horrific experiences of an indigenous people, whose cultural level would have been similar to indigenous peoples in the Southeast during the Late Woodland Period.  Their village is attacked by Maya slave raiders. The hero’s pregnant wife and young child jump into a cenote to avoid the raiders.  The other survivors are brutally marched back to a Maya city.  The hero of the movie is one of those chosen for sacrifice.  He is painted with authentic Georgia Pride brand Maya Blue and is dragged up to the temple top, where his heart will be cut out.  At that point, he escapes and fights through a harrying series of hurdles before reaching the jungle.  He finds his wife and child near death from starvation, but they survive.  The family heads toward the sea to start a new life elsewhere.  Are they headed to an isolated island or another continent?


The movie has been a financial success, despite being VERY DIFFERENT than any other film ever released by Hollywood.  It cost $40 million to produce and so far has grossed over $120 million.  However, Apocalypto had its controversies, beginning with Mel Gibson, himself.  Six months prior to the movie’s release,  Mel was busted for a DUI and in the process let forth a rage of cuss words and anti-Semitic statements.  Despite the brilliance of his directing work and the cinematography,  Apocalypto did not receive a single Oscar.  His anti-Semitic comments had totally alienated the bosses of the film industry.  However, he did receive many awards from Indigenous American and Latin American organizations.  Most of the actors were indigenous. The remainder were mestizo Latinos.  The movie’s star was a Comanche-Yaqui. While receiving one of those awards, Gibson stated that the primary motive for his film was to show that the history of the Americas did not begin with the arrival of Columbus.

apocalypto3There were two primary complaints about the plot.   The movie ends with hero’s family seeing a Spanish galleon off the coast.   The last large Maya cities had been abandoned for about three centuries when Columbus sailed past the Yucatan Peninsula.  Columbus’s ships were much smaller and less sophisticated than galleons, which would not be invented until the 1560s.

Secondly,  the human sacrifice scene was typical of the Aztecs, not the Mayas.   It is now known that the Mayas regularly executed or sacrificed the royal families and soldiers of their enemies, but they did not seize large numbers of slaves for human sacrifice. The cutting out of hearts for human sacrifice was introduced by the Toltec conquerors of the northern tip of Yucatan around 1000 AD.  By this time, the large Classic Period cities, such as Tikal, had been abandoned for over a century.

Was there a Native American Moses and Esther? 

Etowah-statues-color-3Did escaped slaves return to their homeland in Southeastern North America to become ancestors of the Creek and Seminole Indians?  As I mentioned earlier in this series, Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, Director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia de México made a very poignant comment, while thumbing through a book I had given him.  This was on the first day of my fellowship in Mexico.  He looked at the marble statues found in a temple at the base of Mound C at Etowah Mounds and asked, “Ricardo, why did your Indians make marble statues of Maya slaves?”  His comment was primarily based on the simple turbans worn by both statues, which among the Mayas were the symbols of being slaves or laborers.   Notice in the scenes from the movie above, Mel Gibson accurately portrayed Maya slaves wearing those simple turbans.  The statues apparently portrayed the founders of Etula (Etowah).


Swift Creek Complicated Stamp potsherd

In recent years, though there has been much more to the puzzle.  The cultural and ceramic chronology of Georgia and Eastern Alabama is quite odd.    The Swift Creek Culture began in Georgia and thrived there.   Almost all the Swift Creek villages along rivers below the Fall Line in Southern Georgia disappeared simultaneously in the 500s AD.  Other Swift Creek towns and villages began declining.   Meanwhile some new Swift Creek villages appeared in remote mountain locations of Northeast Georgia and western North Carolina.  The making of Swift Creek style pottery apparently ended between 900 AD and 1000 AD.

The Fall Line is created by the drop in elevation between the Piedmont and Coastal Plain.  It has always been a barrier to riverine transportation.   Large indigenous trade and war canoes could not penetrate rivers any further upstream, thus a series of large Native American towns developed during the “Mississippian Period” on the Fall Line.

woodstock check stamped

Woodstock Check Stamped potsherds

The Woodstock Culture arrived around 800 AD.  Its architecture and village plans were entirely different than Swift Creek, but its women made pottery that was quite similar to the style that preceded Swift Creek . . . check stamped.  

Around 900 AD, newcomers, who settled on the Fall Line in present day Columbus and Macon, GA made shell-tempered Redware or Grayware, which was entirely different that previous styles of pottery in Georgia, but identical to that made by Maya Commoners.   Shell tempering was an innovation that allowed pottery to be fired at much lower temperatures and shorter periods of time.  Maya Commoners were required to make this type of pottery in order to conserve  firewood.

Etowah Complicated Stamp bowl

Etowah Complicated Stamp bowl

THEN around 998 AD newcomers arrived on the Ocmulgee River, two miles south of the Ocmulgee Acropolis and on the Etowah River, two miles from an old Swift Creek town and mound site.   They built houses identical to those in the suburbs of Chichen Itza and had many cultural traits similar to Maya Commoners . . . but not the Maya Elite.   The pottery they made, however, was very different that Maya Commoner Redware.  Most pieces were shell-tempered, but the surfaces were decorated in a tradition that had not been seen around most of the Southeast for 400 years – Complicated Stamped.   Archaeologists call this style Etowah Complicated Stamp or Savannah Complicated Stamped but it is really a continuation of the Swift Creek Complicated Stamp pottery tradition.   Why would people, with so many Mesoamerican traits be making a pottery style, typical of the Woodland Period?   Apparently, few or no archaeologists ever thought to make that question.

An Etowah I style house

An Etowah I style house

If the newcomers on the Ocmulgee and Etowah Rivers lived in round Swift Creek type houses, one could presume that they were formerly in some remote location in Georgia, North Carolina, Alabama or Tennessee that the archaeologists missed.  However, they were living a pre-fabricated, post-ditch chiki’s . . . a style of house developed by the Totonacs and still lived in by Totonac and Highland Maya traditionalists.  These were a very special type of chiki with a door on the corner that has only been found in Mexico in the vicinity of Chichen Itza.

The situation sounds very much like the Children of Israel, who were held as slaves or serfs in Egypt until they rebelled and were led back to their homeland in Canaan by Moses.  Proving this ready made plot for a movie, however, could well be difficult.

Archaeologists will have to find where the ancestors of the Creek Indians on the Etowah and Ocmulgee Rivers were living, prior to arriving in their homeland.  Has Complicated Stamp pottery ever been found in the Yucatan Peninsula or Southern Mexico?   The problem is that over the past 150 years, very few archaeologists have been interested in the Maya Commoners.  They didn’t produce museum quality ceramics!

Section of a famous mural in Chichen Itza that seems to portray the sacking of the town in 998 AD. It may portray a rebellion by one ethnic group living there. If so, the rebels could have been descendants of Muskogean slaves, who then fled from Chichen Itza and returned to their ancestral homeland. This scenario would explain why the newcomers at Etula (Etowah Mounds) and Ichese (Lamar Village at Ocmulgee) made identical pottery that seemed to be derived from the traditional Swift Creek pottery, which had been "out of style" for a couple of hundred years in what is now Georgia.

Section of a famous mural in Chichen Itza that seems to portray the sacking of the town in 998 AD.

The Truth Is Out There Somewhere!

Mayas . . . Then and Now Series on POOF


Part One – When the Mayas Invaded America

Part Two – Meeting the Mayas

Part Three –  New Understanding of Mesoamerican History Exactly Matches Creek Migration Legends

Part Four – Origins of the Mayas

Part Five – Symbols of Earliest Known Olmec Writing System Found in Florida and Georgia

Part Six – Five Waves of Maya Immigration into the Southeast

Part Seven – The Chichen Itza – Palenque Connection


The Many Migration Legends of the Creek People

Images: The Tamaulipas-Chattahoochee Connection

Image:  Maya “Indian Mounds” and the Creek Migration Legend

Images: The Coastal Marshes of Vera Cruz and Tabasco States

 Article: Are the Muskogee-Creek People Descendants of the Olmec Civilization?

Article: Did “Apocalypto” Really Happen?




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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history. Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.

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