Maya writing: a historical wonder to be discovered when visiting the Riviera Maya

The written language of the Mayans is, up till now, the only Pre-Columbian language of Mesoamerica that researchers have been able to decipher. One of the main problems this study poses is that some Spanish conquerors, mainly the members of religious orders, destroyed all the books that existed against the opinion of other Spanish people, also belonging to religious orders, who wanted to know this culture. So, the only possible way to study this language has been through the inscriptions preserved in the monuments and objects that can still be admired.

Presently there is some proof of the existence of three codices, the so-called Dresden Codex, Madrid Codex and Paris Codex, where they are kept. From these codices and the Maya writing in Latin characters, emerges the knowledge of an extremely developed culture that had books on the principal subject matters in human writings of that period: nature, science, religion and politics. A culture which is being made popular in the last years and we undoubtedly can observe in Riviera Maya.

The first inscriptions, in which we can talk about the Mayan language, date back to the third Century before our era. This writing system, with its evolutions, survived till shortly after the arrival of the Spanish. Tayasal, in present-day Guatemala, was the last redoubt of Maya writing till its collapse in 1697.

Maya writing is based on two types of glyphs (carved or painted characters), some of them representing whole words, and some representing syllables. It used 800 individual signs. At the beginning and due to the comparison with Egyptian writing, the first European explorers of the XVIIIth and XIXth Centuries thought this writing to be Hieroglyphics. Later they discovered that there both writings were not related at all.

During the Classical Period of the Maya civilization (approx. 320 to 987 after our era), a moment of great importance of the Maya writing, the writing system was divided in two sub-groups: the Ch’olan, in the south of México, Guatemala, Belize and the north of Honduras; and the Yucateca, in present-day Yucatan Peninsula, where the Riviera Maya is located. In spite of being different, both branches influenced each other.

The Maya language was still used after the conquest, but adopted Latin characters. Thanks to this, we can now read abundant Maya literature, among which many books on legends, histories and Mayan traditions. Nowadays, there are six million Mayan speakers in Mexico, Guatemala and Belize, although they use the Latin alphabet for writing.

One of the curiosities of history is that, the man who boasted to have destroyed all the Mayan books, or at least the majority of them, the Spanish bishop Diego de Landa was the person who gave one of the clues which helped discover its meaning. This book entitled Relación de las cosas del Yucatán (there is an edition by Dastin Publishers, 2003), included a wrong catalogue of the Mayan glyphs, which considered each glyph as representing a letter and assuming that Mayans used an alphabet. So he asked a native speaker about the Spanish equivalent for ‘a’, ‘b’, ‘c’… Later on, he discovered that it was a spelling book and some of the glyphs Diego de Landa pointed out were equivalents of the following syllables: ‘a’, ‘be’, ‘ce’.

By the way, I must thank the website of the Fundación para el avance de los estudios mesoamericanos (The Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies) for offering those who are interested in this language, a complete and free study manual. It can be downloaded here.

Francisco Cenamor

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