Saturday, July 8, 2017

Better Unread than Red: How the Cold War Delayed Interpretation of Mayan Writing

One of the few existing Mayan books. Click for photo credit.
Growing up in the 1960's during the Cold War, I heard the phrase, better dead than red many times. There was tremendous fear of the Soviet Union during the era that led to distrust of anything Russian. The extreme display of the fear was McCarthyism, but the expression of fear permeated many sections of society. From cartoons to maps, the Cold War had a significant influence on American and European culture.

Yet one of the oddest impacts of the Cold War on culture was the suppression of the work of a Russian Mayanist in the 1960's.

The leading Mayanist of the time was a British researcher by the name of J. Eric S. Thompson. He was one of those brilliant scholars who dominates a field. Every area of study has one of these leaders who emerge in different eras. Using their power, they can advance or retard new ideas.

Mayan glyphs on a temple in Honduras.
Click for photo caption.
During the mid 20th century, Thompson and many others thought that the glyphs shown in Mayan script on murals, stone carvings, and the few books that survived the Spanish invasion were symbolic representation of real things. Thus, a jaguar carving represented a jaguar and a person's head represented a head or a real person. As a result, the glyphs at the time were thought of as odd representations of a strange reality.

However, during World War II, a Russian linguist by the name of Yuri Knorozov got a copy of a Mayan book dating to a few centuries before Spanish conquest. There is some mystery surrounding how he got the book, but generally it is believed he got it while stationed in Germany near the end of the war. A few years later, he studied the glyphs in the book and wrote a paper in 1952 making a case that the glyphs were not direct representations, but syllabic sound representations. Eventually, Knorozov's ideas were accepted by the 1970's, but for 20 years, in the height of the Cold War, his ideas were not given serious consideration by western Mayanists.

Knorozov's work opened the door to a deeper understanding of Mayan language and culture. Mayan writing told stories of the mundane to the spiritual. No longer were they odd symbols thought of as simple representations. We found that the Mayan people told stories, did complex math, understood detailed astronomy equal to enlightenment astronomers, and had a complex religion based on a number of gods and their relationship to ancestors.

A stelae in Mexico. Click for photo credit.
One of the reasons that Knorozov's work wasn't taken all that seriously in the midst of the Cold War is that his key 1952 paper had an introduction by the journal's editor full of anti-western propaganda. The introduction also noted that a Soviet scientist was able to translate the language while all westerners failed in the task. Of course, this introduction, not written by Knorozov, was not a great way to introduce Knorozov's ideas to the west. As a result, his work was not given much credence by Thompson and other Mayanists.

Eventually, by the mid 1970's Knorozov's ideas were accepted. Today, we understand the language to be syllabic in nature with some direct representation short cuts. What I mean by this is that the written language is sort of like our modern texting with emojis. We use a heart symbol when texting instead of spelling out the word heart. The Mayan writers did the same thing. There is still much more work to be done to fully understand Mayan writing, but we have come a long way since 1952.

The story of the translation of Mayan text is a cautionary tale about how distrust and propaganda can influence discovery and the intellectual development of a field of study. One wonders how much further we would be if Knorozov's ideas were accepted in the west earlier.

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