u Notes from the Underground: Why <i>Apocalypto</i> is awesome

Why Apocalypto is awesome

Saturday, December 20, 2008

I just finished watching Mel Gibson's Apocalypto, one of my all time favourites, for the second time. The movie is set in a Mayan village of hunter gatherers in the 16th century. The jungle that surrounds the village forms a beautiful backdrop to the movie throughout, and it is almost as if the jungle were a character itself. The dialogue is entirely in Yucatec Mayan, and adds to the authenticity (this tough choice not to have the characters speak English shouldn't come as a surprise, once you realize that it was a Mel Gibson movie - his earlier Passion of the Christ after all, was also entirely in Semitic languages. For all of Mel Gibson's wackiness, you still gotta hand it to the guy for being an awesome, tenacious filmmaker.) In other words, the movie is a period piece. But it's also a superb action movie, with almost the entire second half of the movie consisting of an adrenaline-pumping extended chase scene. Except for some cliches - like the little girl who foretells the future in portentous tones, and the important
plot element that is lifted almost verbatim from a Tintin story - the plot twists and turns realistically. And although I would have prefered the visuals and background score to have been a bit subtler, they on the whole definitely add to the movie's experience.

But wait, this is not all there is to this movie. Apocalytpo also beautifully illustrates a couple of ideas that my other topic of this post - Jared Diamond's first book The Third Chimpanzee - makes quite emphatically. And those ideas are:

1. Genocide is a human universal: As kids, we learn how our rise to modernity has been scarred by various horrors - the genocides committed by the Nazis, the British imperalists, Stalin etc. are learned from early on enough that they are now cliches. However, there is always this seeming impulse to set these incidents out as somehow being aberrations; as being worthy of remembrance because of their perceived extreme deviance from the norm in the history of our species. At the very least, the idea that genocide has been a universal feature of humans through time and space, is something that is never said in our history books, and it is something I attained a dim realization of only after watching this movie, and a better understanding was to come only after reading The Third Chimpanzee. Humans throughout the ages, be they hunter-gatherers or European colonizers, have been unhesitant to methodically kill humans en masse if it suits their purpose, and they didn't need special evil in their hearts to do that. There was no golden age of innocence for humanity when genocide was not common. Now, this point may either seem melodramatic or obvious to you, but this movie brought it home to me for the first time.

2. How hunter-gatherers were gradually vanquished, and how that has been bad for humanity: One of the revelations when I was reading The Third Chimpanzee was that farming was not, as is commonly presumed, an unambiguously progressive step for humanity. Jared Diamond, in an essay for the Discover magazine that would eventually be incorporated into the book, calls the turn from hunting gathering to agriculture "the worst mistake in the history of the human race". Why so? For starters, the groups of humans who retained their hunting-gathering ways were in fact much healthier than those groups that opted for agriculture:
Skeletons from Greece and Turkey show that the average height of hunter-gatherers toward the end of the ice ages was a generous 5'9" for men, 5'5" for women. With the adoption of agriculture, height crashed, and by 3000 B.C. had reached a low of 5'3" for men ,5' for women. By classical times heights were very slowly on the rise again, but modern Greeks and Turks have still not regained the average height of their distant ancestors. (link)
The reason was that turning to agriculture deprived our diet of the diversity that hunting-gathering provided it with, and turned it into a diet excessively dependent on a few carbohydrate-rich cereals. Besides, diseases was rife in the dense populations that became possible only with the advent of farming.

But this was not the only, or even the main cost of turning to agriculture. That was to be the creation of gross social inequalities :
Hunter-gatherers have little or no stored food, and no concentrated food sources like orchards or herds of cows. Instead, they live off the wild plants and animals that they obtain each day. Everybody except for infants, the sick, and the old join in the search for food. Thus there can be no kings, no full-time professionals, no class of social parasites who grow fat on food seized from others.

Only in a farming population could contrasts between the disease-ridden masses and a healthy, non-producing elite develop. (from the book, no online link)
This is not to say that there would have been no conception of social status at all among hunter-gatherers. For sure, the more skilled hunters in a hunter-gatherer group would have got more respect, but the scale of inequality would have been nowhere near that between a pharoah and a Jewish slave in ancient Egypt - to take an example from a society made possible only by agriculture.

And Apocalypto illustrates this idea beautifully - the contrast between the egalitarianism and the health of the hunter-gatherers, versus the emaciation and social inequality of the kingdom (a kingdom that could only have been built on the basis of agriculture) they are abducted to, couldn't be greater.

So why did humans turn to agriculture at all?
One answer boils down to the adage "Might makes right." Farming could support
many more people than hunting, albeit with a poorer quality of life. (Population densities of hunter gatherers are rarely over one person per ten square miles, while farmers average 100 time that.) [..]

As population densities of hunter-gatherers slowly rose at the end of the ice ages,
bands had to choose between feeding more mouths by taking the first steps toward
agriculture, or else finding ways to limit growth. Some bands chose the former solution, unable to anticipate the evils of farming, and seduced by the transient abundance they enjoyed until population growth caught up with increased food production. Such bands outbred and then drove off or killed the bands that chose to remain hunter-gatherers, because a hundred malnourished farmers can still outfight one healthy hunter. (link)
And so the process has continued, so that we now live in a world with hardly any communities that practise hunting gathering.


Anyway, so that was a long post. If you have not seen Apocalypto yet, I fear I may have filled your mind with interpretations that you may well not see in the movie. And I shall return to post about The Third Chimpanzee again - it's a really fascinating, fundae-packed book.


At 12:04 AM, January 08, 2009, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think, the argument that agriculture was a strong precursor to immense social inequality, seems weak. Whenever the population of a group increases beyond a certain threshold, some kind of a hierarchy (in other words "inequality") gets introduced inadvertently. A large body of people cannot remain at the same "potential" - since there will be a great variation in their abilities/interests. After that, over a period of time this "professional inequality" will very likely get abused and turn into "social inequality".

Is the chief occupation of the masses so important a factor in deciding the scale of the inequality? I feel that it is more a function of the ideologies of the population.


At 12:49 AM, January 08, 2009, Blogger Venu said...

Whenever the population of a group increases beyond a certain threshold, some kind of a hierarchy (in other words "inequality") gets introduced inadvertently.

The argument is that the kind of population densities that result in inequalities are possible only through agriculture - while people were still hunting gathering, the group populations were low by necessity.

At 2:24 PM, September 12, 2009, Blogger Chandan R said...

Just watched the movie after reading this post.. it was terrific


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