Breaking the Maya Code
Duration: 1 hr 56 minutes
Writer/Director: David LeBrun
Publisher: Night Fire Films
Breaking the Maya Code (2008) is a one hour fifty-six minute video written and directed by David LeBrun from Night Fire Films on the decipherment of the ancient Mayan hieroglyphic script. It is based on Michael Coe‘s bestseller of the same name. The Mayan decipherment is a remarkable accomplishment since there is no “Rosetta Stone,” no example of a passage or text in both the ancient Mayan hieroglyphic script and a known language. Nearly all ancient scripts that have been successfully deciphered have had a Rosetta Stone. The only major exception prior to the Mayan script was the ancient Greek Linear B script deciphered by the architect and amateur linguist Michael Ventris in the 1950’s, a case which bears some resemblance to the Mayan decipherment. Mathematics played a major role in the decipherment of the ancient Mayan script.
Breaking the Maya Code is a well-done documentary with an excellent, engaging narration by actress CCH Pounder. It is both longer and better than the PBS/Nova special Cracking the Maya Code which uses much of the same video footage and script. The interviews bring many of the characters to life in a way that Michael Coe’s book alone cannot. The documentary gives a good introduction and overview to the ancient Maya and the mystery of their hieroglyphic script for those unfamiliar with the subject.
Fans and practitioners of mathematics will be most interested in the role that mathematics played in the decipherment of the ancient script. A serious question and a popular science-fiction theme is the question of how we would decipher a transmission or spoken language from aliens. Most science fiction shows like Star Trek sidestep this vexing issue by postulating magical devices like Star Trek’s Universal Translator that somehow decipher and translate never before encountered alien languages, often into perfect spoken English :-).
A long standing idea is that even the most alien intelligences would share mathematics in common with human beings. Science fiction often portrays contact with an alien civilization starting with identifying mathematics in the alien transmissions or language. Then, the scientists somehow bootstrap from recognizing numbers and mathematical expressions to perfect communication in a few days, minutes, or even seconds :-). The number PI, the sequence of prime numbers, and other presumably universal mathematical truths have been used in these stories; the implicit argument being that if we received a signal that could be converted to PI or the sequence of prime numbers or some other mathematical fact by some sort of place value calculation similar to our decimal numbering system, then this signal could only be the work of intelligence.
The ancient Mayan hieroglyphic script was rediscovered by Europeans in the nineteenth century with the discovery of vast mostly limestone ruins, pyramids, temples and other structures in the jungles of southern Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras and the discovery of three “codices,” folding bark-paper books, in libraries and collections in Europe: the Madrid Codex, the Paris Codex, and especially the Dresden Codex which turned out to contain mathematical tables of the dates of eclipses, the appearance of the planet Venus as the Morning Star, and possibly other astronomical subjects as well. The Europeans also discovered a copy of the Franciscan friar Diego De Landa’s detailed account of the Yucatan and the Maya which included a mysterious and confusing alphabet as well as a list of the months used by the Mayans.
Breaking the Maya Code tells the story of the almost two century long effort to decipher the mysterious hieroglyphics found in the three (now four) surviving codices (hundreds of books of Mayan writing were burned by Diego De Landa and the Spanish following the Conquest of the Yucatan) and on the ancient stone ruins in the jungle. The first success was the identification and partial decipherment of the numbers by Constantine Rafinesque. The librarian Ernst Forstemann was subsequently able to identify and decipher the dates and mathematical tables of astronomical data in the Dresden Codex. Like the ancient Sumerians and Babylonians, the ancient Maya appear to have practiced astrology on a vast scale, possibly ordering their society according to the dictates of the heavens, especially the planet Venus identified with the god Quetzalcoatl or Kukulcan.
How does one get from numbers, dates, and mathematical calculations to a general understanding of a script? With great difficulty and not without additional assumptions and speculations. Breaking the Maya Code tells the story of how the Mayan scholars, armed with the Mayan dating system, began to interpret the hieroglyphic symbols on the pyramids, temples, and other buildings in the jungles as records of the birth, coronation, and critical dates in the rule of various ancient Mayan kings, starting with a theoretical interpretation of a series of dates by Tatiana Proskouriakoff.
In real life, at least at our current state of mathematical and linguistic knowledge, one can only go so far with numbers, dates, and mathematics. The real key, as with Linear B, lay in the hypothesis that the hieroglyphs were, in fact, a syllabic script (like Linear B) encoding the syllables of a known language, or more accurately the ancient precursor or precursors of a family of languages spoken by the modern day Maya who live in Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras. Combined with Diego De Landa’s mysterious and controversial “alphabet,” reinterpreted as giving the hieroglyphic signs for the Mayan syllables corresponding to the sounds of the Spanish alphabet in the sixteenth century! Mayan scholars now believe they can decipher about ninety percent of the known Mayan texts including the codices, the inscriptions on the stone ruins, and inscriptions on ancient decorated pottery.
If we ever encounter or have already encountered true aliens, they would likely have a language totally unknown to us, and possibly think in truly “alien” ways, making communication exceedingly difficult. We would not be able to employ the trick used to decipher Linear B and now the ancient Mayan hieroglyphic script.
From a mathematical point of view, deciphering an unknown script can be thought of as estimating or inferring an unknown mathematical function that maps from the unknown script and/or language to a known language such as English or, in this case, the modern Mayan languages. If one has a Rosetta Stone with an example of the unknown script or language and its equivalent in a known script or language, then this estimation is much easier since one knows exactly or nearly exactly what the function must produce in this case. Even in this case, there are many functions that will correctly decipher the Rosetta Stone but give different results for other texts. Additional constraints must be used either explicitly or implicitly. For example, the deciphered text should, in general, make sense.
These problems are much worse if no Rosetta Stone exists. How does one constrain the allowed decipherment function? If the written script represents a known language with known grammatical rules, which is thought to be the case for Linear B and the Mayan hieroglyphs, then one can use the known rules of the known language to constrain the estimation of the unknown decipherment function. But there may still be major problems. For example, is it possible to construct more than one function that maps the unknown texts to very different translations that nonetheless make sense and follow the known grammatical rules? In the case of Mayan, the inscriptions on the buildings and pottery appear to be a rather simplified subset of the Mayan language: Glorious Ruler Whooping Crane was born on fill in date, Glorious Ruler Whooping Crane became Glorious Ruler on fill in date, Glorious Ruler Whooping Crane’s Drinking Cup, and so forth.
With respect to the Mayan decipherment, if I have a sample of eight-hundred or so hieroglyphic signs (the number of known Mayan hieroglyphs) which, in fact, were used like the signs in modern written Chinese, representing a subset of a much larger set of signs similar to the tens of thousands of signs in written Chinese, and I then mistakenly identify subsets of ten or twenty of these eight-hundred signs as different ways of expressing the same syllable in a hypothetical ancient Mayan language that is a precursor of the modern Mayan languages, can I produce, quite by accident, a plausible highly simplified subset of Mayan phrases such as “Glorious Ruler Whooping Crane was born on fill in the date” that might be found on monuments and pottery?
The answer is not clear and this is a highly technical issue that Breaking the Maya Code does not even mention. It really requires a rigorous quantitative and logical analysis of the decipherment.
The final key step in the Mayan decipherment, at least according to Breaking the Maya Code and many other sources, was the identification of groups of ten to twenty quite different hieroglyphic signs as all representing the same spoken syllable in Mayan. Most syllabic scripts such as Japanese kana have about eighty signs for about eighty distinct syllables. In contrast, the ancient Mayan script uses about eight-hundred signs to represent about eighty syllables, which, from a practical point of view, seems rather complicated and unnecessary. It is true that some languages sometimes use different signs for the same sounds: such as “f” in “faze” and “ph” in “phase” in English. But languages generally don’t use such a vast number of different signs for the same sound, most likely for practical reasons.
Breaking the Maya Code is an excellent documentary and a good compliment to the book of the same name by Michael Coe. It is available on DVD and Netflix. It is well worth watching if you have an interest or might have an interest in this topic. While it gives a good introduction to the Mayan decipherment for general audiences, it is really necessary to delve into the technical literature to assess the plausibility of the decipherment and what problems may exist with the new interpretation of the Mayan hieroglyphics.
Suggested Reading/Additional Resources
Breaking the Maya Code
Michael D. Coe
Thames and Hudson
Reading the Maya Glyphs (Second Edition)
Michael D. Coe, Mark Van Stone
Thames & Hudson
How to Read Maya Hieroglyphs
Hippocrene Books (February 2002)
The image of page nine of the Dresden Codex is from Wikimedia Commons and is in the public domain.
© 2012 John F. McGowan
About the Author
John F. McGowan, Ph.D. solves problems using mathematics and mathematical software, including developing video compression and speech recognition technologies. He has extensive experience developing software in C, C++, Visual Basic, Mathematica, MATLAB, and many other programming languages. He is probably best known for his AVI Overview, an Internet FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) on the Microsoft AVI (Audio Video Interleave) file format. He has worked as a contractor at NASA Ames Research Center involved in the research and development of image and video processing algorithms and technology. He has published articles on the origin and evolution of life, the exploration of Mars (anticipating the discovery of methane on Mars), and cheap access to space. He has a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a B.S. in physics from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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