Maya writing is based on glyphs. Thanks to the epigraphic study, this beautiful writing has been deciphered. Graphic documents have provided the great bulk of information we have about the Maya.

Of the pre-Hispanic civilizations and cultures of America, the Mayan civilization is the only one we can say that had writing. Other Mesoamerican cultures such as Toltec or Aztec share a calendar, and as with the Andean of the Incas, there are indications that they had a basic writing, but can not be classified as such.

WHAT IS THE MAYAN WRITING BASED ON?

Maya writing is based on glyphs, governed by a syllabic system in combination with idiographic glyphs (logograms). This means that there are syllabic glyphs and others that represent an idea with an icon.

If we want to compare it with some other writing on the Planet, It would be Japanese writing that most closely resembles it.

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Glyph shown in syllables

HOW THE MAYAN WRITING WAS DECIPHED

The easiest to decipher in the Mayan writing were the dates, based on the Mayan numerology of points and bars. This caused that for many years it was mistakenly thought that non-numerical glyphs were only idiographic and were gods, representations that accompanied numbers.

They thought that the writing was calendar dates, astronomy accounts, numerical cycles, they thought it was only calculations, not words.

Discover the Mayan writing, a great legacy of the ancient 1
Calendar beads on the wall of a bedroom. Xultún, Guatemala. Source
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Mayan numeration. Source

In the sixteenth century the Franciscan Diego de Landa made an attempt to develop a Mayan alphabet transcribed into Spanish. These notes, without being precise in the knowledge of the Mayan writing, served as false clues in the decipherment of the Mayan epigraphy by the English archaeologist J. Eric S. Thompson and the Russian linguist Yuri Valentinovich Knórosov.

It is not until 1960, following Russian studies Yuri Knórosov about a probable syllabic and non-idiographic system, which Tatiana Proskuriakova concludes in her investigation of the glyphs of Piedras Negras (Guatemala) that the written are biographical chronicles of rulers. In this way he discovers that there is narration, there is a story, there is written history.

From this point on, epigraphic researchers, archaeologists, linguists, and curious people have been deciphering glyph by glyph, comparing each other and drawing conclusions until they deciphered much of the Mayan epigraphy. This has been a brutal advance for researchers in the Mayan world.

It is undoubtedly one of the great civilizations in the History of Humanity.

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Notes of Fray Diego de Landa of the Mayan writing

WHAT SUPPORTS MAYA USED TO WRITE

Mayan writing is a gift given by deities, it is not for everyone. The Mayan elite surrounded their surroundings with glyphs. They embellished the cities with their writing, used the writings as pictures or murals, their vessels were adorned with glyphs, as well as other personal objects.

The ancients used writing on different supports, and used different tools to write on them:

  • on paper love yourself, which was made from plant tissues of tree bark. On this support the codices were written.
  • deer skin the same was used to write codices
  • on the mud cooked from their ceremonial glasses, vessels or different decorations.
  • on the stone walls of buildings, both in stairs, facades and interiors of the bedrooms intended for different uses. Like the stelae and altars were made of stone.
  • and about jade, wood or obsidian objects.
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Codex written on amate paper
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Ceramic vessel decorated with glyphs
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Glyph painted walls in a funeral building in Calakmul
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Glyphs written on a Mayan governor's necklace

The glyphs of Piedras Negras that Tatiana Proskuriakova investigated were engraved on limestone, most of them were stelae that had been left exposed to deterioration.

DIFFERENT USES OF WRITING IN THE ANCIENT MAYAN WORLD

Mayan writing was used for different tasks. Sometimes as an account of war or special events, others for the simple fact of beautifying a wall and object, others to keep written knowledge of astronomy, medicinal plants or mathematics.

We saw that it is a gift given, and that it is not available to everyone, only the elite. The rulers used the gift of the word for different purposes.

  • the stelae were for political use, to narrate victorious battles, commemorations of events related to the family such as births, deaths and enthronements. Historical stories narrated with dates. A colossal history book written in pre-Hispanic times.
  • that Mayan codices they are a true treasure in science mathematics, astronomy, medicine. They are his notebooks of knowledge in these subjects. We have only received 4 Mayan codices.
  • the vases They have shown us windows to daily life and their privacy, thanks to his recreations of life events.
Maya epigraphy
Stele of Palenque relating a historical episode
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Mayan codices collecting knowledge in subjects such as astronomy, medicine or mathematics
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Vase with ceremony scene

WHY FEW MAYAN WRITTEN DOCUMENTS REMAIN

Several factors are the cause of the little material that has arrived well preserved for research.

  • The tropical climate of the Mayan lands did nothing to help conservation. Many stelae have become so eroded that they could hardly be read, and many painted murals were blurred. Both stucco and limestone from much of the ancient Maya territory were destroyed due to their constant exposure to weather factors. Many cities were once again devoured by the forests, erasing the traces of the past.
  • The constant destruction at the time of colonization of everything that represented Mayan knowledge and culture greatly diminished the Mayan legacy. It is only necessary to remember the Auto de fe de Maní, where according to Justo Sierra they destroyed themselves "5.000 idols of different shapes and dimensions, 13 large stones used as altars, 22 small stones carved, 27 rolls with signs and hieroglyphs, tons of books and 197 vessels of all sizes ».
  • Another factor to add is the common misfortune that invades the entire planet: human predation, looting, plundering.
  • And let's not forget about time, that irreversibly erodes everything if one does not have the care, interest and love to preserve it.
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Stele deteriorated by the elements in the archaeological zone of Caracol, Belize.

WHAT MAYA LANGUAGE THE WRITINGS USE

The majority of written records are from the so-called Classic Period, which includes 250 BC per year 900 d. C. It was the period of maximum splendor of the Mayan civilization, of the great lineages, battles, art, discoveries, advances, developments ...

The Mayan languages They have been studied for a long time, they are a group of several. There is almost general agreement about the 8 large sub-groups coming from a common root, which is like the Latin for Romance languages.

Within this classification, Cho'lan is considered the language Classic Maya, the one most related to hieroglyphics, but it is not the only one of which there are records. Of the maya Yukateka and Maya Tzeltal there are also written records. Linguists and epigraphists propose that classical Cho'olti'an was used as the language of the elite.

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Map Mayan languages ​​sXVI according to P. Mathews. Reproduction.
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Family Mayan languages ​​sXVI according to John Roberston and Stephen Houston. Reproduction.

WHO WERE THE SCRIBES IN THE MAYAN WORLD

La deed As knowledge, it has not been available to all humans in our history. It was an art for a select few, all belonging to the ruling elite, of course. The princes and noble craftsmen learned the art of writing, they were blessed with this gift of deities.

Scribes in the Mayan world signed some of his works, just as painters do today. His calligraphies were so much recreated and adorned that it has sometimes become difficult to compare glyphs of the same meaning (same in spelling). Within Mayan cosmology, the deity of wisdom, knowledge, arts and writing is represented by a monkey.

I love this monkey projection, since I see the human being as resated monkeys.

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Photo of Rogelio Valencia
FAMSI (foundation for the advancement of Mesoamerican studies) puts for everyone's knowledge a Mayan epigraphy manual. Link here

Time brings us new surprises that will broaden our knowledge about the Mayan civilization.. Surely they remain to discover glyphs, murals, steles and vessels that remain hidden in the Mayan vestiges that devour the jungle.

Mayan writing will continue to whisper ancient stories.

Good way,

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Sandra Salvadó Training photographer, traveler by vocation and certified tourism guide by the Government of Mexico. We promote natural wonders and contemporary Mayan culture. Great fan of pre-Hispanic history. Author of the blog and co-founder of The Shortest Path Travel, agency that guides you through alternative paths in Mayan lands. Social and sustainable tourism in the Yucatan Peninsula and Chiapas.
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