Reporters of the Jungle
The Mayan script was a labyrinth for linguists. Again and again a researcher would announce that they had found the key, only to reach a dead end. This went on for 421 years. You had to deal with about 800 hieroglyphs. Too many for an alphabet, too few for one symbol for each word.
If the Spanish colonists had not forbidden the Mayas to write their language by imposing torture, a death penalty and burned their countless books, this puzzle would never have arisen. But in 1562 the bishop Diego De Landa declared Mayan culture heresy, and had it destroyed.
Ironically, Diego De Landa was fascinated by the Maya. He mastered their language, studied their traditions, and asked a Mayan who had become a Catholic priest to assign the characters to their Latin counterparts. He sent this to Europe under the heading "Report from Yucatán". Shortly afterwards he organized a massacre and it would take centuries before scientists could understand the "Report from Yucatán".
In 1810 the number system was identified and soon after three gods could be named.
In 1880 a calendar system and an almost exact astrology emerged. A newspaper editor even managed to determine the beginning of the Mayan calendar. The Day of Creation, 13th August, 3,114 B.C. An architectural draughtswoman proved that many of the depictions didn’t represent gods, but dynasties.
There were still 800 characters that made no sense though. Small fragments here and there, yet no one was able to read the texts.
A child prodigy deciphered the Mayan secret in 1983. He was only seventeen and his name is David Stuart. His parents were explorers and so he had been drawing hieroglyphics from an early age in Mexico.
The scientist Linda Schele became his mentor when he was ten. At the age of twelve he presented his first scientific paper at a congress. And only the world's major Maya researchers were able to follow him. At the age of fifteen he travelled as an expert with National Geographic into a newly discovered cave and contributed to new insights. Two years later, he cracked the Mayan code.
He realized that the symbols were letters, but the writers had graphic freedom. They could choose from up to fifteen characters for each letter. Hence the size of the alphabet. He assigned the Latin letters ITUI to one symbol and UTIYA to another. The latter has five characters, which means it could be written in more than seventy-five variations.
In today's spoken Mayan, these two words mean: "and then it happened" and "since it happened", and they were written everywhere. The Mayas told stories. They told of the lives of their kings, athletes and great personalities. They recorded political events, their mythology, philosophy and scientific findings. They had carved newspapers into the walls.
And then the most important thing happened, the English linguist Kathryn Josserand traveled to Guatemala and gave the Mayas living there the key to their history back. Since then, their schoolchildren have been writing in shark, monkey and jaguar heads again and they bear the names of their gods.
"and then it happened...."
Text and Illustrations: Maielin van Eilum
Proofreading: Ada Delsolco