The Spanish Franciscan Diego de Landa (1524–1579) is a controversial figure in the history of colonization in America. As the inquisitor and bishop of Yucatan (Mexico), he tortured indigenous Maya and destroyed his writings, which he regarded as demonic. But his own texts were at the center of almost everything we know about this civilization today.
Her main work “List of Things in Yucatan” was published in Europe in 1864. It contains a Mayan alphabet that Landa believed she learned from conversations with locals. Communication between Europeans and indigenous people was almost impossible. To give you an idea, “Yucatã” which the Spanish thought was the name of the place actually comes from “I don’t understand what you are saying” in Maya. Unsurprisingly, Landa’s alphabet has a lot of flaws, not least because he thought the Mayan glyphs were letters and reality is more complex. Nevertheless, “Relação” played the role of the “Rosetta stone” in Maya script.
In 1876, Frenchman Léon de Rosny understood that the glyphs of some animals were easier to identify because they were associated with animal drawings. This observation was at the root of the decisive advance of the Soviet Yuri V. Knosorov in the 1950s.
Knosorov fought in the Red Army and participated in the takeover of Berlin in 1945. On his return he took a book about the Maya scriptures with him, which he took from the German national library. His adviser in Leningrad saw his interest in the subject and suggested writing a dissertation on the “relationship”.
In 1952, Knosorov found that the glyphs for “dog” and “turkey” had a common symbol and suggested that they correspond to a syllable that is common to both words. With that in mind, he noted that Maya is (mostly) a logosyllabic language, the symbols of which represent syllables rather than letters, as Landa had thought.
In the late 1950s, Russian-American researcher Tatiana Proskouriakoff identified two glyphs in Mayan monuments, which she interpreted as “birth” and “beginning of the reign”. This simple observation revealed that the monumental Mayan inscriptions contain huge records of rulers and dynasties, paving the way for remarkable advances in deciphering Mayan script in the 1970s and 1990s.
That is why we now know that America’s history goes back two millennia, and not to the arrival of Colombo, as was believed until recently.