Random Walks: Primal Instincts

ApocalyptoEveryone seems to be abuzz these days about Apocalypto, the latest directorial effort by Mel Gibson. Gibson’s suffered a bit of beating in the press of late for his drunken anti-semitic rants, but never let it be said that the man can’t tell a good story. Apocalypto is Braveheart with a Mayan twist, and just as much gratuitous blood and gore as The Passion of the Christ.

The hero is a young man named Jaguar Paw, whose village is attacked by a Maya war party. The captured villagers are herded back to the Maya city, where the women are sold as slaves and the men are painted blue and sacrificed atop a stone pyramid. Jaguar Paw is spared and escapes, and the rest of the film follows his journey through the rainforest — former Maya captors in hot pursuit — to be reunited with his wife and son.

Much has been made of the “factual inaccuracies,” historical anachronisms, and other liberties taken with specifics of Mayan culture. For instance, many of the details of the human sacrifice apparently were taken from Aztec rituals (eg, the blue paint, the cutting out of the heart, and the decapitation). The Maya didn’t use metal javelin blades, they used obsidian (volcanic glass) for their cutting tools and weapons; they were only just beginning to experiment with metal work when the Spanish conquistadors arrived in the early 16th century. And the use of ant mandibles to suture wounds is also understood to have been an Aztec practice. So Gibson and his team essentially conflated various aspects of Mesoamerican culture.

Personally, I don’t have a big problem with directors taking a few liberties when creating an obviously fictional feature film. Most of us can tell the difference between that and, say, a documentary. Nonetheless, it’s good that archaeologists and historians are speaking up about some of the mis-representations, because it helps increase awareness and broaden the general public’s knowledge of a truly magnificent ancient culture. The Maya were about a lot more than human sacrifice and stunning architectural ruins.

For starters, the Maya independently developed the concept of zero by 357 AD — long before the Europeans, who didn’t figure it out until the 12th century. They were also quite advanced in the realm of astronomy, despite being limited to observing the heavens with the naked eye. The most obvious error in Apocalypto is when Jaguar Paw is spared being sacrificed by a timely solar eclipse, which supposedly awed the Maya priests into freeing the remaining captives. Okay, the eclipse occurs just before a full moon, when in reality, 15 days would have to pass. I’m willing to grant Gibson some artistic license on that front. The real problem is that the Maya would have known all about the solar eclipse, and would hardly have found it awe-inspiring. Their calendar was sufficiently accurate to enable them to predict both solar and lunar eclipses far into the future, and their codices have survived as evidence of their expertise.

But it’s their architectural feats that people find most awe-inspiring, especially the giant, stepped pyramids, which Wikipedia informs me date back to the “Terminal Pre-classic period and beyond.” They’re not just visually stunning; there is growing evidence that many Maya structures also provide a sort of “Stone Age” sound track via unusual acoustical effects. Thanks to a rapidly emerging interdisciplinary field known as acoustical archaeology, more and more people who study various aspects of Maya culture are beginning to suspect that at least some of those sound effects were the result of deliberate design.

Among the strongest proponents of this hypothesis is David Lubman, an acoustical consultant based in Orange County, California, who has been visiting the sites of Mayan ruins for years, recording sound effects, and taking them back home for extensive scientific analysis. Back in 1999, I wrote about his work with the great pyramid at Chichen Itza, part of the Mayan Temple of Kukulkan, for Salon. The pyramid is famous, first, for a visually stunning, serpentine “shadow effect” that occurs during the spring and fall equinox; according to some Maya scholars, the temple seems to have been deliberately designed to align astronomically to achieve that spectacular effect.

The second effect is an acoustic one: clap your hands at the bottom of one of the massive staircases, and it will produce a piercing echo, that Lubman, for one, thinks resembles the call of the quetzal, a brightly colored exotic bird native to the region. He considers it the world’s first and oldest sound recording, making the Maya the earliest known inventors of the soundscape. Similar effects have been noted at the Maya pyramid at Tikal in Guatamala, and at the Pyramid of the Magicians in Uxmals, Mexico. In the past, such effects were ascribed to design defects, but Lubman thinks they may have been deliberate — implying that, far from being savage primitives, the Maya’s grasp of engineering and acoustical principles rivaled their astronomical accomplishments.

It’s been seven years since I wrote that article, and Lubman hasn’t been idle. He’s turned his attention to the Great Ball Court at Chichen Itza, a huge field measuring 545 feet long and 225 feet wide. It’s essentially a Stone Age sports arena, where a part-sport, part-ritualistic ball game (common to ancient Mesoamerican cultures) was played, known in Spanish as juego de pelota. It was a literal bloodsport, known as the sport of life and death. It was extremely violent, requiring players to wear heavy padding. Even so, they often suffered serious injuries, and occasionally players died on the field. There is evidence that, in the Aztec version, the losers would be sacrificed to the gods, and their skulls used as the core of a newly made rubber ball for the next game. This was considered to be a great honor, so they might have considered it “winning.” Guides at Chichen Itza insist that it was the winning team members who were sacrificed. (Personally, I can’t think of a better reason for throwing a game.)

The Great Ball Court has another interesting feature: it’s a sort of “whispering gallery,” in which a low-volume conversation at one end can be clearly heard at the other. Similar “whispering gallery” effects can be found in many European domed cathedrals — most notably St. Paul’s in London — but it’s the curved domes that create the amplification effect as sound waves bounce off the surfaces. The Great Ball Court has no vaulted ceiling, and even today, the source of its amplification is incompletely understood, although theories abound. Lubman believes that the parallel stone walls are constructed in such a way that they serve as a built-in waveguide to more efficiently “beam” sound waves into the temples at either end.

There is also a bizarre flutter echo, lasting a few seconds, that can be heard between two parallel walls of the playing field; you can listen to a sound sample here. This acoustical effect is the subject of Lubman’s most recent work, which he presented earlier this month at a meeting of the Acoustical Society of America in Hawaii. Invariably, in Western architecture, such flutter echoes arise from design defects, so for decades this effect at the Great Ball Court has been disregarded by archaeologists. Ever the maverick, Lubman believes that in the case of the Great Ball Court, such an echo might have been a deliberate design. Lubmangbc_photo

The flutter echo would have been heard every time a ball hit the wall of the playing field — and possibly even when it the hard surfaces of the protective gear worn by the players. There is an eerie resemblance to the sound of a rattlesnake about to strike, and many of the carvings in the stone surfaces at Chichen Itza feature rattlesnakes. Some modern Maya interpret the flutter echoes as the voices of their ancestors, according to Lubman.

In fact, weird sound effects seem to be par for the course at the sites of Maya ruins. Chichen Itza also has “musical phalluses”: a set of stones that produce melodic tones when tapped with a wooden mallet. And at Tulum on the Yucatan coast, guides have reported clear whistles when the wind direction and velocity are just right, which Lubman believes could have been a possible signal to warn of developing storms.

There are plenty of scholars who remain skeptical of Lubman’s theories, and intent is well-nigh impossible to conclusively prove in the absence of express written historical documentation stating that intent. Even Lubman admits his “evidence” for intentional design is a bit circumstantial.

His work is fascinating, nonetheless, and really — why couldn’t a society as advanced in math and astronomy and architecture as the Maya also have figured out how to create strange acoustical effects with their structures? We think of them as Stone Age primitives, and violence was undoubtedly a huge part of their culture. I certainly wouldn’t advocate a return to those traditions, but Lubman’s work offers a window into this lost culture that indicates the Maya were far more sophisticated and complex than the brute savages depicted in Gibson’s otherwise-entertaining film. Perhaps there’s an element of wishful thinking there, but unlike Apocalypto, there’s some solid scholarship behind Lubman’s theories. It isn’t outright fiction.

When not taking random walks at 3 Quarks Daily, Jennifer Ouellette writes about science and culture at her own blog, Cocktail Party Physics. Her latest book, The Physics of the Buffyverse, has just been published by Penguin.