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Writing System – The Mayan Civilization

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The Maya Writing System (often referred to as hieroglyphic writing due to a superficial resemblance to Ancient Egyptian writing, with which it is not related) was a combination of phonetic symbols and ideograms. In reality, the pictorial structure is more similar to Chinese, where ideograms can be nested to form more complex concepts while also functioning as phonetic representations.

The decipherment of Maya writing has been a long and laborious process. Some parts of it were deciphered in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (mostly related to numbers, the calendar, and astronomy), but the major breakthroughs were made in the 1960s and 1970s, and progress has accelerated since then. As a result, most Maya texts can now be read almost completely in their original languages.

Destruction of the Written Legacy

Spanish missionaries, in their zeal to impose and establish the Christian religion among the indigenous people, ordered the burning of all Maya books shortly after the conquest to expedite the process of conversion. This act dealt a significant blow to the preservation of knowledge of ancient Maya writing. Although many stone inscriptions still survive (mostly in cities that were already abandoned when the Spanish arrived), only three books and a few pages of a fourth book have survived from the ancient libraries. Rectangular chunks of plaster are a common discovery in Maya archaeology; they appear to be remnants of what were once books after all the organic material decayed.

In reference to the few surviving pre-Columbian Maya writings, Michael D. Coe, an archaeologist from Yale University, said: “Our knowledge of ancient Maya thought represents only a tiny fraction of the complete picture, for out of the thousands of books in which the full extent of their rituals and knowledge was recorded, only four have survived to modern times (as if all that posterity knew of us were based on three prayer books and The Pilgrim’s Progress).” Regarding the study of Maya writing, there are two versions: The first version involves epigraphers. Among them, we start with Constantin Rafinesque, who in 1832 was the first to decipher the numeral glyphs.

In the 20th century, we have Russian scholar Yuri Knorozov, who conducted a study to decipher Maya writing published in 1952, which was initially met with resistance from several archaeologists. However, his efforts are now recognized by Maya civilization scholars. Currently, there are around 30 epigraphers worldwide.

The second version involves Dr. Ramón Arzápalo Marín, a philologist and Maya scholar (not an epigrapher, although he is knowledgeable about the language), who states that there have been several failures in deciphering Maya writing so far because it is not alphabetic (as Diego de Landa proposed) or syllabic, but rather logographic. In this type of writing, reading is challenging due to the presence of popular and religious expressions, idiomatic phrases, etc., similar to other languages.

The progress made by epigraphers enables the reading of various documents, including stelae, and now revealing information has come to light, such as dates, events, names and positions of individuals, family ties, and occasionally the phrase “se lo comió” (he/she ate it), referring to ritual cannibalism. The work of epigraphers is highly interesting, and they are the ones responsible for deciphering Maya writing. Several universities are currently training new generations of epigraphers.

It is important to consider the complexity of this writing system as recent studies show that the Maya used both the alphabetic and ideographic systems in their texts, sometimes within the same word.

Return to the main article The Maya Civilization