Apocalypto (2006): Filmmaking Meets Archaeology


Despite being fascinated by Central American history during the pre-contact and contact eras, I put off watching Apocalypto (2006) because 1. Mel Gibson (awful human being) directed it, and 2. I read it was a gore-fest. I finally forced myself to watch it, and while yeah, there’s gore, it wasn’t nearly as Maya Chainsaw Massacre as I thought it would be … and the depiction of Maya city life was AMAZE-BALLS. Of course, I know nothing about historical Maya dress, but I reached out to someone who does: Dr. Cara Tremain, Department of Sociology & Anthropology, Langara College (Twitter: @DrCaraTremain), who is an expert in Maya archaeology, particularly Maya dress, and she was kind enough to answer my questions. (Note: are you an expert on non-Western dress? Pre-medieval dress? Some specific corner of the world? Reach out to us, we’d love to be able to ask you questions about other films and TV series where all we can say is “pretty!”)

Director Gibson wanted to make a chase movie and was inspired by a documentary about the Maya presented by archaeologist Richard D. Hansen, who he hired to consult on the film. Yes, it’s definitely a chase movie, but it’s well made and luckily Gibson isn’t on screen, although by watching it we’re putting money in his pocket. The film is supposedly set in the just-pre-contact Maya civilization (c. 1502), and beyond that I’m going to leave issues of plot, direction, etc., to others, instead briefly discussing general historical accuracy and then focusing on the costumes.

So there was a huge debate among academics when the film came out about whether or not Gibson’s depiction of Maya civilization was historically accurate. According to the Routledge Handbook of Popular Culture and Tourism:

“Most scholarly reviews markedly agree on the lack of historical authenticity of the film. This is interesting, and perhaps even shocking, because of the depth that the film production went to in terms of getting the facts about the Mayas right, including consulting with anthropologists and historians, using Maya-Quiche as the language for the film, hiring Native American actors, and using contemporary Mayas as film extras.” (C. Lundberg, & V. Ziakas, eds, 2018)

Some scholars were thrilled to see a civilization that rarely gets put on screen at all, let alone with a serious approach. That being said, many argued that the various eras of Maya civilization were conflated, and that in particular, the human sacrifice depicted in the film is much more Aztec (totally different region/culture) than Maya. I point you to articles in National Geographic and the Washington Post for a good overview of the debate.

Since we’re Frock Flicks, let’s move on to focus on:

Apocalypto‘s Costumes

The costumes were designed by Mayes C. Rubeo, a Mexican designer known for this film as well as Avatar (2009), John Carter (2012), World War Z (2013), Warcraft (2016), Thor: Ragnarok (2017) and Jojo Rabbit (2019), the last of which earned her Oscar and BAFTA nominations. According to an interview with the designer in the LA Times, the crew was almost entirely Mexican:

“I wanted it that way. The only person who wasn’t Mexican was my wardrobe supervisor. I had Mexican professional wardrobe people, and I gathered a group of Mexican artisans that I found randomly by going to remote communities. I had people who were experts in feather art. I had people who were jewelers.” (Susan King, “History Fires the Imagination; the Past Guided ‘Apocalypto’s’ Makers but Still Left them Room to Create their Tale of a Maya World,” Los Angeles Times, Dec. 7, 2006)

This behind the scenes video interviews Rubeo (among other filmmakers) and shows some of her and her team’s process and thinking:

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Some of the results of that hand printing.

According to archaeologist/consultant Hansen, the sets, makeup, and costumes are “accurate to the nth degree” (In ‘Apocalypto,’ fact and fiction play hide and seek), although elsewhere he admitted, “‘there was a lot of artistic license taken,’ and that there is a mash-up of architectural styles, art, costume and ritual from different time periods during the millennium-long Maya reign” (Maya Mistake Mel Gibson’s Gory Action Film Sacrifices a Noble Civilization to Hollywood).

In an essay he wrote defending the film’s authenticity, Hansen declared:

“Costumes, ornaments, and props were produced in warehouses and workshops in Veracruz supervised by property master Richard (Rick) Young, costume designer Mayes C. Rubeo (Avatar), armourer Simon Atherton, (Gladiator, Saving Private Ryan, Robin Hood, Clash of the Titans), and a large and diverse staff of outstanding artists, hair, and makeup designers (http://www.visualhollywood.com/movies/apocalypto/credits.php). Extraordinary attention to detail of tattoos, jewelry, textiles, headdresses, banners, shields, weapons, and ceramics was based on images, monuments, ceramics, and murals from archaeological contexts.” (Richard D. Hansen, “Relativism, Revisionism, Aboriginalism, and Emic/Etic Truth: The Case Study of Apocalypto,” in The Ethics of Anthropology and Amerindian Research: Reporting on Environmental Degradation and Warfare: Reporting on Environmental Degradation and Warfare, edited by Richard J. Chacon and Rubén G. Mendoza, Springer New York, 2011)

That being said, let’s get into the weeds, shall we? Because, visually, the costumes are AMAZING. They’re incredibly detailed, and in one particular scene, demonstrate a massively complex culture. Are they historically accurate, I was dying to know? Dr. Tremain says:

I actually think it’s difficult to say definitely yes or no because so much of Maya art (those with representations of people) is two dimensional and likely followed conventions/had restrictions in how accurate it could be, so I think it’s difficult to say whether or not the representations are really representative of the Maya. Also, much of Maya art represents elites so we don’t have a good idea of what the majority of the population looked like … Most of the representations of the Maya that we have come from a very specific time period called the ‘Classic’ (CE 250-900) and especially the ‘Late Classic’ (circa CE 600-900). We don’t know enough about changing dress through time. Likely the costumes were based on Late Classic Maya art, but the Spanish turned up in the later Postclassic period so it is unlikely they are 100% reflective of the time period the movie represents.”

Dr. Tremain has written a very good overview of Maya dress for laypeople (if you want the deep dive, check out her dissertation). Here’s a few visuals drawn from that article to give you a general sense of what you should be looking for:

Maya noble, from lintel 24 at Yaxhilan; illustration by Krystyna Deuss via https://www.mexicolore.co.uk/

Maya noble, from lintel 24 at Yaxhilan; illustration by Krystyna Deuss via https://www.mexicolore.co.uk/

Jaina figurine of woman weaving on backstrap loom via https://www.mexicolore.co.uk/

Jaina figurine of woman weaving on backstrap loom via https://www.mexicolore.co.uk/

Male and female Maya clothing via https://www.mexicolore.co.uk/

“Basic components of everyday dress included a loincloth or short skirt for men and a huipil or long skirt (perhaps paired with a quechquemitl) for women,” Male and female Maya clothing via https://www.mexicolore.co.uk/

The film shows several different “worlds”: a small hunting village (the hero’s home), a band of invaders from the big city, and then that city itself. There’s a definite contrast between lead character, Jaguar Paw, and his people vs. the invading army and city people. According to Tremain, “It looks like they are trying to make the city folk less ‘primitive’; which says more about our ideas of people in the past/indigenous cultures than reality.”

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Compare the village men …

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… with the city invaders.

The village women are mostly shown wearing skirts and shell necklaces. Tremain says the jury is out here, as “We have so few representations of women though, and they are usually elite women when we do see them, so we don’t have a clear idea of what non-elite women wore.” Other lower-class women are shown wearing skirts and blouses, while men wear loincloths. Tremain says that there are “representations of women in Maya art wearing huipiles and what are often called ‘sarongs’ … Males did often wear loincloths but they also wore longer skirts as well.” 

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And the village women, mostly topless …

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… with the poorer city women, who wear blouses.

Things get the most interesting when Jaguar Paw and several of his villagers are captured and brought to the big city (I should note that only 1/3 of the film is set here; the rest consists of the villagers and warriors running through the jungle and fighting). They travel through the city, ending up in a central plaza where ritual sacrifices are happening. You get to see the complexity of Maya culture and the wide range of social classes, and I give the filmmakers props for conveying both things primarily through visuals. According to Latin American historian Stewart Brewer:

“This scene is very accurately recreated. Slaves work to burn limestone in order to cover the pyramids and temples with white plaster. The captives walk past corn fields where corn, squash, and other crops are tended. Turkeys are seen in the markets as well as iguana, jaguars, and other animals. Women weave and dye cloth and it is apparent that Gibson paid special attention to detail in the construction of this set. As the prisoners of war are guided through the city, women come out and slather them with blue paint, signifying their status as captives and sacrificial victims. This is also very accurate based on both Maya paintings and central Mexican codices. Finally, the citizens of this Maya city are much wealthier than the villagers we are familiar with. In addition to the body scarification, tattoos, and piercings mentioned above, they also have teeth that have been filed to points and filled with jade and other precious stones. They wear a lot of jade ornamentation on their faces and bodies. And, some of the royalty are decked out in brilliant red and green feathers, the latter of which come from the quetzal bird of Guatemala.” (Latin American History Goes to the Movies: Understanding Latin America’s Past through Film, Routledge, 2015)

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You see a wide range of social classes in the city scenes.

The upper-class women wear strapless dresses, which Tremain supports, but mentions, “I think there was less difference in style/shape of garments between elite and non-elite women, and more in the decoration/quality of the garments.”

The most complex costumes are worn by the king and queen, who are wearing ALL the jewelry and what I initially thought were feather-accented chair backs that turned out to be actual garments. Tremain says of these costumes, “I think ‘disneyfied’ is the word, lol! In all seriousness, elites likely wore very elaborate outfits like this for ceremonies but in their day-to-day lives they would have worn much simpler outfits. We do have evidence of huge headdresses and backracks in Maya art, so I see where they were trying to go with this. The long green feathers definitely are fairly accurate — we know the Maya used the long green tail feathers of the male Quetzal bird in their outfits.”

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The king (left) and queen naturally wear some of the most complex costumes.

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I asked her specifically about the “backracks,” which Tremain says are accurate: “Likely constructed on a wooden frame to make them lightweight, and probably covered in quetzal feathers. We often seen them worn by dancers in Maya art.”

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Behind the scenes shot showing you that those backracks are attached.

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On display.

Most of the costumes were made from cotton, and in fact, as the villagers travel through the city there’s a shot of weavers at work. I asked Tremain to comment, and she said, “I haven’t rewatched the film to see the looms, but from this image it looks largely correct. We have assumed in the past that elite clothing was mostly cotton, but we know based on recovered textile fragments that maguey/agave was also used, and it would have been helpful for ‘stiffening’ garments like belts … It is likely both elite and non-elite women wove garments, and those with more expensive materials/more elaborate designs were for elite women only.”

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Artisans weaving cotton.

The jewelry is one of the standout elements. According to costume designer Rubeo, “Wealthy Maya always wore jade. But because of the gem’s weight and cost, wood beads were used on the costumes and jewelry. If you caramelize them in a certain way, it looks like the real thing … We did use amber and coral for real” (King, “History Fires the Imagination,” LA Times).

I asked Tremain to comment on the jewelry. She writes, “We know the Maya stretched their ears and wore very large ‘ear spools’ so that looks quite accurate … We also have evidence from Maya art that they pierced their septums occasionally as well.”

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The priestesses have their septums pierced.

Looking specifically at the royals’ jewelry, Tremain says, “The huge ear spools are probably fairly accurate too — the size and shape of them made them so heavy they needed counter-weights to keep them in their ears! … The large ear decoration is very much like what we see in Maya art, as are the necklaces/collars. The nose decoration is very strange, and we only really see it in Maya art sometimes, but usually not as elaborate as this — so I’d be cautious so say the nose attachments are representative of Maya dress.”

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Note the necklace and giant earspools, as well as the nose thingie.

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The king is all jade, all the time.

I asked her specifically about the jade tooth implants worn by many of the upper classes, and she responded:

We have evidence that the Maya sometimes wore jade and greenstone adornments in their teeth — this would have been achieved by filing into the tooth and adhering the stone with a sticky or tar-like substance. We have no hard evidence that they implanted greenstone or jade into their faces as shown in the photo though, because we have no preservation of human skin or tissues in the Maya region (the environment is too humid and the soil too acidic for organic materials to preserve). It is impossible to determine exactly what something was supposed to represent in Maya art (was it a piece of jade on the skin? Was it shell or another material? Was it a scar?).”

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Jade tooth implants!

Tattooing and scarification also play key roles in defining the film’s look. According to the LA Times, “Because the Maya used tattoo decorations on their faces and bodies, Aldo Signoretti, who worked on hair and makeup design, decided to have the tattoos match the characters’ hair color. When it came to the wealthy characters, Signoretti illustrated the decadence of the society by matching the color of the body paint and hair” (King, “History Fires the Imagination,” LA Times). Makeup designer Vittorio Sodano told Variety, “The research started in the classic way, with museums, the Internet and history books … From that point, we started studying the Mayan pyramids and thousands of pottery vases with illustrations that represented scenes from normal Mayan life … We learned that every single tattoo and scarification has a singular meaning” (Oscar nominee for makeup: Apocalypto).

Tremain finds the body painting and tattoos “quite fanciful!” although she says there is a source for the body painting of the sacrificial victims (“The victim … having smeared him with blue … they brought him up to the round altar … and his officials had anointed the stone with a blue color”: Alfred M. Tozzer, Landa’s Relación de las Cosas de Yucatan: A Translation, 1966).

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Tattoos on one of the weavers.

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An upper-class couple are carried in a litter; they have body paint and scars.

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These women are painting the sacrificial victims.

I asked her about the scarification, and she said, “It’s impossible for us to know with certainty from Maya art whether these kinds of things were scars or something else … We have some ethnohistoric evidence (written by the Spanish after they arrived) that the Maya of the Yucatan practiced tattooing, so it is plausible they practiced scarification but we can’t be 100% sure.”

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Many characters have that forehead bump scar thingie.

Of course, the element that most excited me was the hair. THE HAIR. Complicated braids and crazy elaborate coiffures — you know they made my heart sing! Tremain says that the shaved hairlines check out: “We have good evidence from figurines that hair was very stylized and looked like it was ‘shaved’ or cut into ‘stepped’ designs.” She points us to these two similar examples:

I asked her how whether the high, complicated women’s hairstyles were accurate and how they would have been achieved (did they wear wigs?); she says, “Sometimes we do see unusual hairstyles in Maya art — particularly on figurines  … We haven’t got any evidence of wigs or anything like that, but someone once suggested to me that they may have got their hair into these unusual shapes by using sticky substances akin to the idea of hair gel!” Here’s two relevant examples provided by Tremain:

So, overall, can we say the film’s costumes are historically accurate? I think given how much isn’t known, one can’t come down on either side. Overall, it looks like the designers and filmmakers did their research and also took some liberties. What’s most important to me is that they did do that research, and the vision they put on screen really communicates effectively just how elaborate and complicated Maya civilization was — when many viewers might initially dismiss the civilization as primitive. Some might take away from this that Maya culture was “weird,” but hopefully they at least won’t think it was undeveloped?


Have you seen Apocalypto? If so, share your thoughts!


About the author



Kendra has been a fixture in the online costuming world since the late 1990s. Her website, Démodé Couture, is one of the most well-known online resources for historical costumers. In the summer of 2014, she published a book on 18th-century wig and hair styling. Kendra is a librarian at a university, specializing in history and fashion. She’s also an academic, with several articles on fashion history published in research journals.

7 Responses

  1. Boxermom

    Thanks, Kendra! I might have to check this out, since it’s on Amazon Prime. :)

  2. Mary

    This movie is so engrossing – it’s one that if I find that it’s on, I just have to stop and watch and that’s it for the next hour or so.

  3. Katie

    My biggest issue with this movie is that it’s essentially Braveheart-it’s about a Noble Savage who goes up against the big, corrupt, empire, and, in some sense, wins. Unlike Braveheart, someone clearly did their homework, and it’s visually stunning. However, I can’t really enjoy watching it, since the way the urban Maya are presented, the goal to make them look frightening, decadent and almost inhuman.

  4. Bruja

    One issue I have with the “Apocalypto” costumes are colours. Everything is so dull, even the quetzal feathers. I don’t know where Gibson or his designers got this idea, Mayan art is full of lively, vibrant colours. Look at the Codices, the murals, the pottery. These blues, reds, yellows, greens and oranges are so strong, so juicy, why did Gibson dress everyone in these dull rags? Whyyyy?

  5. Andy

    I saw that movie years ago on TV, so thankfully I didn’t give Gibson any money. But yeah the costumes were very interesting. However my problem was with how “evil” and “depraved” they tried to make the city Mayas look with their incredibly high levels of religious corruption and self-destructive exploitation of the land and even their toddlers smiling gleefully as people are sacrificed (what is it with Mel Gibson and putting creepy/evil babies into his movies??)
    And yeah the monstrous scale of human sacrifices, especially of warriors from surrounding tribes taken prisoner just for that (a practice known as “Flower Wars”) was mostly an Aztec thing, which is also the reason why so many of their subject tribes allied with the Spanish to fight against the Aztecs.