After the Spanish invaders defeated the Aztecs who ruled the Mexican highlands, they encountered traces of a much more sophisticated culture scattered across the Yucatan (southern Mexico), Guatemala, Honduras, Belize, and El Salvador. They are impressive monuments in mysterious cities that have been lost in the jungle. Their walls are covered in intricate symbols called glyphs.
It was what was left of the brilliant Mayan civilization, whose fame lasted between 250 and 900 years. The descendants still lived in the region, but since they were impoverished and reduced to subsistence farming, it was hard to believe they could have anything to do. to do with the culture that built such monuments.
Europeans preferred to attribute the authorship to some unknown people from the Old World, perhaps even the lost tribes of Israel, and the Maya, until travelers John Lloyd Stephen and Frederick Catherwood published the great “Travel Incidents” in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan ” . This book was full of observations that were translated into spectacular illustrations. It was responsible for the fascination the Maya had for Western intellectuals.
Unfortunately, fascination does not bring understanding: the Maya went straight from oblivion to myth.
When I first read about them, the idea still prevailed that they were a peaceful and contemplative people who turned to the search for spiritual values, led by a benevolent caste of priests of mathematical astronomers who were of moderation in all Things to be governed, discipline, cooperation, patience and respect for others.
To see how silly it was, we had to decipher the writings of the ancient Maya, whose reading their own descendants had forgotten over the centuries. Today we know that their advances in astronomy and mathematics, while remarkable, did not yield any other wisdom: the Mayans lived in an almost permanent war, and their elites were particularly bloodthirsty and tortured.
Stephens had no doubt that glyphs represent a complete writing system and asked that “a champolion” (reference to the discoverer of the Egyptian hieroglyphic writing) use his talent to decipher it.
This challenge, however, was largely ignored – not even mentioning the major works on ancient scriptures – until it was overcome within two decades of the mid-20th century. Stay for next week.