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From Biscotti to Chocolate: How Mayan Culture Is Being Preserved

Though the Spanish destroyed many Mayan documents, one of the oldest sources of information on Mayan culture is being preserved digitized by the Smithsonian.

In Amanda Knox, the Netflix documentary about the American college student convicted and acquitted—twice—of murdering her British roommate in Italy, an Italian lawyer named Walter Biscotti, who represented a co-defendant, delivered himself of a remark that should live in infamy among professional historians:

It bothered me that the American media lectured us about the law… This courthouse, in 1308, housed the first faculty of law in Europe. In America in 1308, they were drawing buffaloes in caves.

The man named after the twice-baked cookie was trafficking in half-baked opinion.

The people who study history for a living claim that the ancestors of today’s Mayans had taken up agriculture and therefore begun to live in cities by 2,000 BCE.

From 600 to 800 BCE was the Zapotec Period. The Mayan calendar was developed and the people who developed it were teaching writing, mathematics, and astronomy in urban centers. I doubt they fit Mr. Biscuit’s insult because there were no buffaloes in Mesoamerica but—more to the point—the Mayans did not live in caves.


The apex of Maya civilization was from 250 CE to 950 CE. Mayan culture thrived in cities from the Yucatan all the way to Central America and their ghosts speak from the abandoned cities to this day: Tikal, Copan, Uxmal, Palenque, and Chichen Itza were all urban centers of commerce and learning that rose and fell over five hundred years before the law faculty of Italy in 1308 CE.

Europeans did not discover “the very foundation of our number system—our first zero.” The earliest use of zero known to Europeans was in modern Cambodia in the year 683 CE. The Mayans had discovered zero over a thousand years earlier.

I am not informed what civilization discovered the twice-baked cookie or when.

By 950 CE, the great Mayan cities had been abandoned, but their story was recorded on codices and carved in stone on public buildings.

So what was happening in America in 1308 CE, when the Italian biscuit-man claims we were living in caves? There was at that time in North America the city of Cahokia, on the Mississippi River across from modern St. Louis, with a population greater than any city in Europe at the time. By 1325, there was the wondrous city of Tenochtitlán in the Valley of Mexico, the capital of the Aztec Empire.

Tenochtitlán sheltered a population more than twice that of any city in Europe in the middle of a lake where the Indians built their own dry land and maintained a system of causeways and canals with technology on a level that led some Europeans to call it “the impossible city.”


How could an Italian lawyer, an educated man, not know these things? Principally because the Spanish and Portuguese were exploring under writs from the Pope to convert any residents of the so-called New World. Before the killing began, from 1513 onward, the Spanish would read Indians the Requerimiento, a statement that unless they submitted themselves to the Christian god as represented by the colonizers, their property and their lives were forfeit.

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Since the Requerimiento was read in Spanish or Latin to persons innocent of those languages, it was a mere formality, but the failure to comply did not just forfeit their property and their lives. By rendering themselves outside Christendom, they unwittingly made all their arts and sciences works of the Devil. Good Christians were bound to destroy works of the Devil. Bishop Diego de Landa explained in 1562, speaking of Mayan glyphs:

We found a large number of books in these characters and, as they contained nothing in which were not to be seen as superstition and lies of the devil, we burned them all, which they regretted to an amazing degree, and which caused them much affliction.

“They” were the Mayans, who had not disappeared with the decline of their cities and who still inhabit an area from the Yucatan down through Central America in modern times. All the records of their arts and sciences went into the Spanish fires, excepting four codices. Three are named for cities harboring the stolen property and one for the museum that kept it for many years. The Dresden, Madrid, Paris, and Grolier codices.

The preface of the Venus Table of the Dresden Codex, first panel on left, and the first three pages of the Table.

The preface of the Venus Table of the Dresden Codex, first panel on left, and the first three pages of the Table.

All told, less than 250 pages survived to document one of the great cultures of the world on its own terms. From the four surviving codices and the carvings on Mayan public buildings, other sources must be evaluated by the ratio of Mayan to European in the presentation.

This year, the Smithsonian has digitized one of the oldest sources of information on Mayan culture, Libro de Sermones Varios en Lengua Quiche (1690). There are multiple authors over many years, but one of them saw fit to pen a dedication to Pope Urban IV. We cannot know if that was an act of devotion or an attempt at survival insurance for the text.

The book is written in four languages: Latin, Spanish, K’iche’, and Kaqchikel. The latter are two of the 33 Mayan languages, not counting regional variations. Sergio Romero, who teaches in the Spanish and Portuguese Department of the University of Texas at Austin, explained to how the evolving language use in this book shows the Mayans resisting assimilation.

At the same time, the Spanish tried to influence the language to meet their needs. Romero points out that K’iche’ has no word for “sin,” because the Mayans did not have that concept and therefore had no need to describe it.

Dominican missionaries repurposed the K’iche’ word mak, which meant “will,” to cover the concept of “sin.” That’s not too much of a stretch when in the Bible the forbidden fruit hangs on the tree of knowledge of good and evil. God creates that tree in Genesis 2:9 and declares it off limits in Genesis 2:17, but we know how that turned out. The knowledge of good and evil is necessary to unleash individual will.

Gabriela Pérez-Báez, curator of linguistics in the anthropology department at the National Museum of Natural History, agreed with Romero that the digitization of Libro de Sermones is “vitally important for scholars.” Still, she told

To me, being an advocate for linguistic diversity in this respect of human rights, it’s very difficult to hold a document that was an important part of the conversion to Christianity and all of the abuses. This book was representative of an era during which colonialism and the associated conversion to Christianity oppressed the indigenous population in often violent ways.
Disrespect for cultures indigenous to the Americas comes in understandable and less understandable forms. The Italian lawyer’s insult is somewhat understandable as a fruit of his ancestor’s sins. The ancestor who sinned would be Cristoforo Colombo, a citizen of the Republic of Genoa because Italy did not yet exist.

Even if you could write off the physical destruction of the Mayan records to the superstition brought to the Americas by a monotheistic patriarchal desert cult, what could possibly excuse making the claim that American Indians did not communicate in writing when virtually all the writings were purposely destroyed?

Then there was the calculation of the person-hours needed to construct Cahokia leading to the conclusion that American Indians could not have built the city because they were itinerant hunter-gatherers. Science is not to blame for that misfire—bad science is. But as the science got better, there was no stampede to correct the error even when the alternative theory involved space aliens.

The more sophisticated the indigenous cultures appear to have been, the more criminal their destruction appears, and that crime is only compounded by denial. The colonists are heavily invested in the claim that the Americas were empty of civilization when the Europeans arrived to civilize them.

Assuming Walter Biscotti ever reads this article, I will accept his apology if it is accompanied by a cup of cappuccino and a nice chocolate biscotti, chocolate courtesy of the Mesoamerican civilization he denied.