Primary sources of Maya history – part three

articles History & People Maya

Ronald A. Barnett ©

Mexican History

Decipherment of the Maya hieroglyphic system of writing represents perhaps the greatest breakthrough in unravelling the history of the ancient Maya. Estimates vary on the actual percentage of the glyphs that have been successfully interpreted so far, but enough progress has been made to enable researchers to piece together much of the early dynastic histories of such famous Maya cities as Copán, Yaxchilán, Tikal, Palenque and others. Inscriptions containing historical narratives are found on stelae (elaborated commemorative stone markers), buildings and other stone monuments, and even on ceramics. Unfortunately, over-zealous priests destroyed all but four of the Maya hieroglyphic codices. We do not know how many historical manuscripts were destroyed in the infamous auto de fe of Bishop Landa but the four Maya codices left are calendrical and ritualistic in content rather than historical. Nevertheless, they are important both for the decipherment and in the reconstruction of the intellectual and cultural history of the Maya. As background to the historical content of the Maya inscriptions it may be helpful to look at the history of the decipherment.

In Breaking the Maya Code (1992), M. Coe describes in detail the long and controversial history of the decipherment. The Mayan numerical system and calendar with dates of rulers and dynasties were the first to be interpreted, but the deeper meaning of the hieroglyphic texts had to await the painful process of decipherment.

In the early days of discovery Stephens and Catherwood, who recorded many inscriptions, some now lost, were among the first to speculate that the Maya writing system was at least partly phonetic and not simply ideographic or pictographic. But the story really begins with Bishop Landa, the man who left us the best description of the Maya at the time of the Conquest and yet did the most to destroy their culture, in particular their system of writing. However, in his Relación de las cosas de Yucatán (1566 – 1573) Landa included an “alphabet” of Mayan characters that has been a source of misunderstanding and controversy ever since. Landa’s “ABC” alphabet actually consisted of the Maya signs for syllables in Mayan, not letters of an alphabet. By phonetic, we mean that the symbols represent the sounds of a language, as in English. The glyphic symbols recorded by Landa stand for the actual sounds of the Mayan language as spoken in Yucatan at that time, although their true phonetic value was not firmly established until much later. This phonetic element was the main key in the decipherment.

Unfortunately, Eric Thompson, the greatest Mayanist of his day, was firmly convinced that the Maya script could not be phonetic and he attacked vigorously anyone who held such views. Benjamin Lee Whorf, for example, was a brilliant linguist and an expert in North American Indian languages and while his tentative reading of a Maya text was incorrect, he was on the right track with a phonetic approach. But it was really the Russian epigrapher Yuri Knorozov who recognized the value of Landa’s “alphabet” and managed to decipher some phonetic symbols, for which he was viciously attacked by Thompson. To his credit, Thompson near the end of his life admitted his mistake.

Several major breakthroughs followed. Heinrich Berlin managed to identify some glyphic symbols of place names. These “emblem glyphs” enabled researchers to identify names of cities and dynasties in the inscriptions, much as Alfonso Caso did for the decipherment of the Mixtec codices in Oaxaca. Another major advance came with the work of Tatiana Proskouriakoff at the archaeological site of Piedras Negras, where she discovered that groups of stelae (stone monument markers) arranged in special groups were actually historical in content with initial and inaugural dates of Maya rulers.

Other discoveries, along with the gradual decipherment of individual glyphs, began to reveal Maya history, at least from the viewpoint of the ruling classes. Some archaeologists indeed downplay the value of the decipherment precisely because the inscriptions were commissioned by Maya rulers and so do not reflect the lives and thoughts of the common people. However, in Temple 22 at Copán we have an actual quotation (in Maya hieroglyphs) of a Maya king, known only as Ruler 13: “On the day 5 Lamat is the completion of my k’atun (in office).” This tells us the date of this man’s twentieth anniversary as ruler at Copán. The silent stones begin to speak.

The controversy over the phonetic component in the Maya script illustrates the danger of holding too rigid a view of a subject. If a leading scholar like Eric Thompson could be so mistaken after a lifetime of meticulous research on the Maya hieroglyphs, what defense does the public have against pseudo-historians who overwhelm the unwary reader with well-written but misleading claims backed up by impressive-looking research? Unfortunately much of the accurate information about the Maya and other civilizations of ancient Mexico is often buried deep in academic journals in reference libraries accessible only to professional researchers. There is, however, no lack of popular writers, especially pseudo-historians and the like, eager to foist their fantastic theories about the Maya on the paying public.

Myths about the Maya (not Maya myths) run the whole gamut from scientific (or near-scientific) methodology to completely unsubstantiated theories and deliberate distortion of the available evidence. When examined closely, most of these theories about the origin of the Maya or the significance of the Maya Calendar for modern generations turn out to be Much Ado About Nothing (Shakespeare would have had a ball here). In view of the many pseudo-scientific accounts of the Maya to which the public is exposed in articles, books, and via the Internet, it may be useful to present here some of the current facts and fantasies about the Maya. Much ado is made of the predicted end of the current Maya era in A.D. 2012. Therefore, let us examine briefly the Maya concept of cyclical time. The Mesoamerican calendrical system was based at least partly on this cyclical concept of time during which certain significant events recurred. In Maya thought, the present era was preceded by several Cosmic Ages, each of which ended in destruction for one reason or another. Historical events were recorded and fitted into a complex system of intermeshing sacred and secular calendars. But the Maya also realized the practical need for an ordinary lineal time calendar in order to keep track of and justify family dynasties. Therefore, through astronomical observations and mathematical calculations, the Maya hit on the year 3114 B.C. (in our system of time reckoning) as the starting point of the current Maya era. For the Aztecs it was the Fifth Sun or Cosmic Age when the Spaniards arrived in the 16th century. According to Maya calculations, which we shall not go into here, the present age is destined to end in A.D.2012, a date which some popular writers have invested with spectacular consequences for the human race. Here it is sufficient to note that the 3114 B.C. date is simply a calculation into the past; it is not, in spite of the claims made by some pseudo-historians, the actual starting date or inauguration of the Maya calendar. The date 2012 does, however, coincide more or less with a predicted cosmological event.

In his Galactic Alignment theory, John Major Jenkins describes the coming 2012 event as the “precessional convergence of Milky Way and solstice sun.” Put simply, this means that the earth not only spins about on its axis every 24 hours as it circles the sun, it also wobbles a bit, with the result that after many centuries the configuration of fixed stars that can be seen overhead from any one particular spot will change in appearance. In astronomical terms, this is known as precession. Like the ancient Maya, modern astronomers think in terms of vast time cycle. It will take 25576 years to complete a cycle between one alignment between the centre of the galaxy and the sun and another. I wonder how many people will even notice, except for professional astronomers.

Here factual evidence begins to give way to “New Age” creative thinking. Jenkins uses the alignment of stone monuments at the archaeological site of Izapa in Chiapas, Mexico, near the Guatemalan border as hard evidence that the ancient Maya not only knew about the coming event but presumably possessed advanced esoteric knowledge of the stupendous changes destined to transform human consciousness and awaken cosmic awareness in 2012 or thereabouts. However, precession takes place so slowly that it would require centuries of careful astronomical observation to “discover” it, although ancient sky watchers, such as the Maya, may well have been aware that “something” was happening in the placement configuration of overheard stars. But it is a very long step from there to the assertion that the Maya not only knew that this “galactic alignment” was going to take place in 2012 but also possessed “ancient wisdom” concerning the accompanying cataclysmic events to take place at that time. However, we may still respect Jenkins for his scholarship without accepting all the uses he makes of it.

A. L. Vollemaere’s Maya Chronology appears deceptively “scientific.” In his attempt to discredit the GMT correlation by means of which most Maya scholars today convert Maya dates into our own calendar system, Vollemaere deals solely with the numbers and thus appears to avoid wild speculations. However, in Maya studies when a writer states unequivocally that everybody but he, the writer, is totally wrong and only he has the ultimate answer, warning bells should go off in your mind. Of course it is not impossible that one person may be right and everyone else wrong (We have all heard of Copernicus) but this is generally a warning sign that the writer in question has not done his or her homework properly.

Maurice Chatelain’s Astronomical Numerology is easily disposed of, unless you believe that the U.S. astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin really did see alien spacecraft on the moon when Apollo 11 landed there on July 21, 1969. Chatelain apparently believed it, for in 1971 he wrote Our Ancestors Came from Outer Space. His other major claim to fame was his rewriting of the Maya Calendar based on the chance observation that the conjunctions (i.e when two or more planets closely approach one another) of Jupiter and Saturn occurred about 7254 days apart instead of the 7200 day katun, the basic 20 year time period of the Maya calendar. Having satisfied himself that the Maya got it all wrong, Chatelain then proceeded to manipulate the numbers in order to convince readers that the Maya had inherited their skills from an ancient technological race from outer space. In fact, the Maya math is much simpler. Since the Maya year was only 360 days (with five “unlucky” days), 1 katun = 20 years x 360 days = 7200 days, not 7254 days as Chatelain would have it. He simply added 2 and 2 and got 5.

Much the same can be said about other “alternative” interpretations of the Maya calendar. Jose Argüelles’ Dreamspell Calendar is simply a futile attempt to replace our current calendar with a “13 Moon calendar” based on the mathematics for the ancient Maya 260 day sacred calendar, the Tzolkin. If he had his way, the Dreamspell Calendar would be the third major calendar reform in history, the first two being the Julian (45-45 B.C.) and the Gregorian (A.D. 1528) resulting in our current Julian-Gregorian calendar. This new calendar, according to Argüelles , would bring about a “global harmonic standard” and a new human consciousness based on Art instead of Money (if only it were true!).

Gilbert and Cotterell’s Mayan Prophecies purportedly aims to explain why the terminal date 2012 will be marked by cataclysmic events. This is an impressive-looking publication, but very misleading. I even bought a copy before I realized that it was just a rehash of old ideas about the destruction and the resurrection of the lost continent of Atlantis with a lot of pseudo-science thrown in to impress the general reader. In a scathing review of the book, John Major Jenkins pointed out so many errors in the astronomical data that the research appears to have been done very carelessly, thus rendering the main thesis of the book of little value. But I gained a new respect for Jenkins, although I still think he is hearing the grass grow on his Galactic Alignment theory of the Maya.

It would be counterproductive to attack these “alternative historians” simply because one disagrees with their conclusions. Some have done much sound research and can present their findings in a most convincing fashion. The problem is that in promulgating their pet theories, they go far beyond the limits of the evidence. Many popular writers on the Maya have a superficial or completely skewed understanding of the Maya hieroglyphic writing system and Mesoamerican calendrics. They do however possess vivid imaginations. And of course there is always the possibility of reaping monetary rewards for telling people what they want to hear. Personally, I would not be particularly upset if real evidence of alien space visitors should turn up in some odd spot or other. However, for the moment I prefer to look at what we actually know, or at least think we know.

Published or Updated on: June 1, 2006 by Ronald A. Barnett © © 2006
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