Over the weekend, I finally got around to seeing Mel Gibson’s hyper-violent Apocalypto; it’s been on my list for a while now, primarily because I need to study up on jungle chase scenes for the Now the Hell Will Start screenplay. The flick is every bit as brutal as I’d heard, and then some—don’t think I’ll be able to shake the human-sacrifice scene for weeks or months. But it’s also a crazy masterpiece of sorts; much respect to Gibson for pursuing such an odd and striking vision. Rare is the filmmaker who has the stones (and the zillions of dollars) necessary to shoot a two-hour epic entirely in the Yucatec Maya language.
Reading up on Apocalypto after my viewing, I came across several charges of historical inaccuracy. This got me thinking about a possible scientific inaccuracy—there’s a scene where the female protagonist uses live ants to suture her son’s wound, and the technique struck me as potentially apocryphal.
According to the late, great biologist Eugene Willis Gudger, ant mandibles were, indeed, used as natural sutures in ancient times. The first mention in medical literature can be found in Hindu texts dating back to roughly 1,000 B.C. Gudger found that the practice spread to Asia Minor and Europe, and persisted through the waning days of the Ottoman Empire:
One account from 1896 in Smyrna, Asia Minor, described the application of ten living ants to a one-inch wound of the scalp by a Greek barber who handled the ants, approximately three-eighths of an inch long, with tweezers. Once their jaws were firmly affixed to the wound he snipped off the bodies with scissors. The retained mandibles were removed after three days, when favorable healing was established.
But Mayan usage of the technique is not mentioned in the peer-reviewed literature; Brazil is the only Western Hemisphere nation where the ant-mandible stitching was definitely practiced. So let’s give Apocalypto half credit on this one.
Tons more on the medicinal use of insects here, including a compendium of bugs and their specific uses. Whooping cough? A nice cockroach will fix you right up, promise.