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What are the world’s greatest SOLVED mysteries?(r/AskReddit)
How to read Mayan Hieroglyphs. Imagine: you’re a 19th century Westerner. As far as you know, the jungles of Mexico are an empty waste, filled with terrible bugs and horrible climate (you’re also probably racist, so not a whole lot of help there either). Then, well, you find this. Giant ancient temples, monuments, buried in the jungle for hundreds of years. How? Why? Sure, the Spanish recorded cities in the North of the Yucatan, but they were nothing like this. And you just keep finding more of them deep in the jungle, and most crazily they’re covered in what is unmistakably… writing. Who were these ancient people, and what did they have to say?
Digging through the archives in Europe, the Western world found ancient books written by these same people, the few saved from Spanish fire. This was a whole literary culture, destroyed by the Spanish in their invasion. Think about how radically this changed our ideas about the world. Look, the fact that the ancient Hittites, the Assyrians, The Sumerians, the Minoans wrote, well that wasn’t too unlikely, right? I mean, they were related to cultures we knew could write. Hell, there’d even been great success in figuring out Egyptian, Sumerian, Assyrian and several others. But, understanding this was going to be way harder.
Firstly, there was no translation, no rosetta stone. Well, not unless you counted a weird document made by a Spanish Monk in the 1500s, which most scholars at the time didn’t. The sounds it suggested for each symbol didn’t make sense when you applied them. Besides, scholars became increasingly convinced the ancient maya were peaceful priest-astronomers, whose symbols were not really like our (western) writing but something more primitive. Symbols, ideas, not a real script. Secondly, people thought for the above reason, that there was no living descendant of the language, certainly not the Maya of the native peoples. Oh, no definitely not.
Now, by the 1920s, scholars had figured out how to read their numbers, and found a fantastically complicated series of interlocking calendars, of astrological patterns. But, there wasn’t any progress on the actual reading. In fact, there wasn’t any until the 1950s from a very odd place.
Scene: Berlin 1945. Soviet Soldiers, entering the capital of the enemy fan out through the city to end the war. Our hero: Yuri Knorozov, an eccentric Soviet soldier, formerly studying Egyptology before the war. Now, the good story is that Knorozov entered the national library in Berlin as it was burning, and saw in a moment of happenstance a rare book containing copies of three extant Maya codices (folded books). Rushing, he saved it and read it through the return journey to Moscow. However, he later said that there was no fire, he simply picked up a box of books and found it. But still! This is a critical moment.
For Knorozov was a great admirer of the old decipherers, the men who had translated Egyptian, Hittite. Determined, he settled back in Moscow, and began to think. He had never been to Mayan lands (he wouldn’t get to go until after the fall of the Berlin wall), but armed with books and thought, he made important progress. His major incite was this: the maya script was a rela script, probably composed of syllables, and that de Landa’s notes (the Spanish Monk) was a garbled account of these syllables. In 1952 he published his early work, met with scorn in America. Yet he kept at it.
Now, Knorozov wasn’t the only guy to be working on this, there many other important researchers, but this story is getting long. So to cut it short: With Knorozov’s insights, he and many other researchers in the USA and Mexico began to translate the maya script. At first, just a little, then with each confirmation, a little more, until it was a great flood. Through 500 years of jungle and persecution, the ancient Maya were speaking to us.
About what? Well, at first it didn’t appear that interesting. Here was not the earlier priest-astronomers. Kings being crowned, bloody wars, the founding of cities. Yet, slowly a complex tapestry revealed itself, of warring cities, great leaders, epic battles. What had seemed like distant figures became vicious death and life struggles for power. They weren’t all that different from the politics around us (alright, more penis-stabbing, but hey).
So there: a great mystery solved. The Mayan script. A thousand years of civilization that we can now read (mostly).
Edit: I’m so glad my most popular comment is about history. If you want to know more, Michael D. Coe’s The Maya is a great (if a bit dense) introduction. Coe’s Breaking the Maya Code is a more focused text on just the script. For a shorter piece about breaking the code and other cases of script decipherement (Egyptian, Greek Linear B) and other unsolved scripts (Rongorongo, Etruscan, Greek Linear A) check out Robinson’s Lost Languages: The Enigma of the World’s Undeciphered Scripts, which is also a fantastically beautiful book (serious, if the typographer of this book and the graphic designer ever finds this post, please pat yourself on the back. Or something. You’re awesome!).
Thanks Reddit Gold Guy Explains why thinks looked different.