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Reading signs: Maya studies today and tomorrow

Martha Macri likes to tell a story well-known in Maya studies lore. One day the infamous 16th century Spanish father Diego de Landa was talking to a Maya man who knew the script of his ancestors. Landa, who didn't understand the principle of Maya glyph-writing, asked him to write down a sentence.

The man didn't want to comply. He wrote down instead: "I don't want to." Landa, who had the glyphs translated, misunderstood. For years afterward the sentence was harmlessly rendered as "I do not wish." "Maya studies," Macri concluded with a chuckle, "is one of the first evidences of resistance to Europeans."

Macri, a Cherokee enrolled in Oklahoma, founded the Maya Hieroglyphic Database Project (MHDP) in 1983, itself a scholarly tribute to Maya resilience. For 20 years she has been reading signs that most people would regard as a dead script - the artifact of a civilization that is still alive and well.

"My interest and prime motive for making the MHDP is to really study dialect differences and language differences that were present during the Classic period [300-900 AD]," said Macri, who teaches at the University of California/Davis. Though "language always changes over time," she cautioned, the era of the ancient Maya isn't as long ago as we think.

"It is still possible to identify which currently spoken Mayan languages are closest to the languages of the script," Macri noted. Some scholars identify the Chort? tongue of eastern Guatemala, given its conservative grammar, as the most similar. After working for years on a Tzeltal dictionary, Macri added, she is struck how often current speakers using a modern Maya tongue will clarify something written in the glyphs centuries ago.

The glyphs reflect the work of numerous Maya languages, of which as many as 30 exist today. To some people it would be an unruly Babel; to Macri, a linguistic anthropologist, it is a blessing. "It's a miracle that we have these languages here with us to still study to help us understand what went before."

Vestiges of the Maya past exist in more visible ways as well. Many figures depicted in the glyphs display a prominent profile with sharp nose and sloping forehead, a sight still visible in Maya faces across the Yucat?n, southern Mexico, and Guatemala. The similarity makes it hard for Macri to believe that Westerners, at first sight, couldn't admit the Maya were the descendents of those who built the palaces at Palenque and Tikal.

Today those sites face a different threat than cultural arrogance: high-volume tourism. At Maya sites like Palenque and Chich?n Itz?, access to ceremonial temples once open to the public is now restricted. Macri is philosophical about the problem, for the time being. As one of her graduate students once put it, "'The sacred objects can take care of themselves.'"

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But tourism and hard research are far from competing pursuits. In the last two years, said Macri, the volume of texts from Palenque has increased by a third, and tourists are a major part of what keeps research going there. "Unless people are interested in it, governments don't fund it. So it is again a balancing act between overusing a site and making sure people have an opportunity to appreciate it."

The problem is that Native people are rarely chosen to do the research. Their lack of access to the ancient text and to educational opportunity in Mexico and Guatemala make professional training difficult. Some archaeologists have offered workshops to locals, who show great interest in their past. In Guatemala, said Macri, "day-keepers," Maya calendar priests, evince a strong desire to learn more about the glyphs.

One pitfall, Macri cautioned, is "recolonization," what happens when an archaeologist goes down to Guatemala and teaches Maya people about Maya script until they end up believing more in his knowledge than their own. "When you have such inequality of opportunity or political power and social status, then you have a real danger."

Maya scholars like Victor Montejo, a colleague of Macri's at UC Davis, have objected to outsiders going south to tell day-keepers their own history. "There are things that epigraphers, that archaeologists and scientists know from scientific study about these cultures that people who are participating in them don't know," Macri acknowledged. "But that doesn't really compare to the amount that people who are members of those cultures, the amount of information that they have."

To date, the profession has lacked a good mix of insider/outsider specialists. So Montejo is seeking funding to bring Native people from Mexico and Guatemala and train them to read the inscriptions, "to bring people from these cultures who really have a perspective that people who are not from them can't have," Macri said. Since cultural values differ north and south of the border, particularly attitudes concerning the dead, such a combination could be effective in further unlocking the ancient Maya world.

Macri's research currently includes another project, funded by the National Science Foundation, in which she's overseeing the transcription of some 500,000 pages of linguistic data gathered by ethnographer J.P. Harrington in the early 20th century.

The project includes data for dozens of North American Native languages, many on the verge of extinction in California. UC Davis is training Native communities to transcribe Harrington's notes on their own languages. Among others, the Barona Band of Mission Indians, the Kumeyaay, and the Indian Canyon Muntzuns have participated, the latter hoping to revitalize their culture at the same time they make a case for federal recognition.

"What we can learn from the Maya is just a tip of the iceberg that was really common knowledge for a lot of Native American people," said Macri, whose research is grounded on both sides of the border. And unlike Diego de Landa's informant centuries ago, she's happy to write down whatever she can.