At the time very little of its written language was understood. We had their numbers and calendar, and a handful of proper names; the rest was either in dispute or simply inaccessible. So we inferred what we could from the surviving images and architecture, and from folklore handed down and repeated to the conquistadors centuries later. But we knew there was more to learn from their writing, if only we could read it.
This was fine with me, since the story was all set in the present anyway. But it piqued my curiosity: how would you decode an entire written language from scratch?
I was even more intrigued when we apparently did it. In the years since my writing gig I’ve seen press accounts of the progress, and today we can read most of what the ancient Mayans left. We’ve learned that their civilization was more intellectual and more violent than we first believed, and that the different city states were more varied and autonomous. But nothing told me how we learned to read about it.
A few weeks ago I was visiting Cal State Los Angeles, and spoke to Mesoamerican archeologist Jim Brady. He’s with one of his students in the picture to the right, in a cave in Guatemala.
He and I talked for a while about student success, but as soon as I decorously could, I asked what I was really wondering: how did we crack the written Mayan language? Did we find a Yucatan Rosetta Stone? Better computers?
He hesitated, and suggested I read a book by Michael D. Coe called Breaking the Maya Code. So I did.
The story turns out to be more complicated and less uplifting than I’d expected. By Coe’s estimation, we had all the tools we needed for the job around a hundred years before the important intellectual breakthroughs. What delayed us wasn’t the want of artifacts or processing speed, but some characteristic blind spots in human reasoning.
One was jingoism. For a long time scholars were raised on the belief that written language evolves in a straight line toward greater sophistication, beginning as simple images that stand for ideas, maybe thousands of them, without any bearing on the sound of the spoken language. From there they progress to a smaller set of symbols with a greater capacity for nuance, maybe a few hundred, no longer looking like cartoons but still hard to draw. The pinnacle comes (reassuringly enough) with an alphabet just like ours, a couple of dozen simple symbols, which represent endless combinations of spoken sounds, the crowning achievement of abstract thought.
Now, I’m around 30 years out of my high school world history course, but I’m pretty sure that’s how I learned that story on the first round. In hindsight it’s easy to see the self-serving, Social Darwinist slant to the narrative, but at the time I bought it. Apparently so did most people. As a result, the phonetic basis of written Mayan was out of consideration for those trying to decode it; the indigenous writers of the New World were considered too backward.
A second barrier: we didn’t separate our opinions of competing theories from the personalities espousing them. So when a soft-spoken advocate of the correct, phonic approach was opposed by a well-respected, acerbic, and charismatic leader in the field, most observers followed the leader – out of intimidation, respect, or both. It took decades of careful, incremental, and tentative opposition, gradually bolstered by peer review, to chip away at the false head start. Decades.
Finally, and this one may be the toughest: we were slow to shed our paradigms. Even for those who suspected a phonetic basis to written Mayan, the structure of its vocabulary, syntax, and grammar makes it so unlike most languages that it is very hard to crack. Experiences are grouped and categorized in unfamiliar ways; verbs don’t have tenses, or make do with strange ones; nouns clump together differently for living things than for objects. We weren’t just failing to find patterns; we were looking for the wrong ones.
Only get this: per Coe, you can still find a few million Central Americans speaking native languages descended from the same Mayan as the old stone inscriptions. These heirloom tongues carry some of the same quirks of expression, syntax, and grammar – but amazingly, few of the antiquarians thought to look there for helpful parallels. As Coe puts it:
Incredible as it may seem, up until about four decades ago the Maya script was the only decipherment for which a thorough grounding in the relevant [contemporary] language was not considered necessary. Until quite recently, there were still a few “experts” on the subject, hidden away in the dusty recesses of anthropology departments, who had only the foggiest idea of Maya as a spoken language.
Now, this is just one professor’s account, and I imagine he has detractors. But it’s all plausible enough, and it encapsulates some of what I love and hate about academia.
In the minus column: we are too often prone to those same three foibles: we’re distracted by celebrity, held up by our stunted imaginations, and – above all – trapped by our initial assumptions. That last one is such a barrier to learning that Ed Nuhfer, a geologist at Humboldt State University, begins every course he teaches with a knowledge survey to inventory his students’ preconceptions on the subject. He wants to know what he’s up against, before he gets to work.
Yet for all the familiar demons, this remains a story with a happy ending: today, we can read ancient Mayan. No matter how clumsy the progress along the way, we made it.
And in this case, the solution seems to have depended on a couple of things universities do best.
First, the effort was intensely multidisciplinary, involving anthropologists, linguists, historians, ethnographers, and others. We even marshaled the skills of cryptography and crossword puzzles.
And to me, even more affirming of university life is that there wasn’t a climactic Hollywood breakthrough to report. What happened instead was typical of organized, collective learning: successive cohorts of scholars did marginally better at using all the tools at our disposal, and eventually we overcame our own imperialism, misplaced loyalty, and all-around tunnel vision.
If you’re in the business of making knowledge, that’s not a bad way.