preserving surviving Mayan culture
Smithsonian has digitized one of the oldest sources of information
on Mayan culture, the Libro de Sermones Varios en Lengua Quiche,
created in 1690. (photo courtesy Manuscript 2262, National
Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution)
In Amanda Knox, the Netflix documentary about the American
college student convicted and acquittedtwiceof murdering
her British roommate in Italy, an Italian lawyer named Walter Biscotti,
who represented a co-defendant, delivered himself of a remark that
should live in infamy among professional historians:
It bothered me that the American media lectured us about
This courthouse, in 1308, housed the first faculty
of law in Europe. In America in 1308, they were drawing buffaloes
The man named after the twice-baked cookie was trafficking in
The people who study history for a living claim that the ancestors
of todays Mayans had taken up agriculture and therefore begun
to live in cities by 2,000 BCE.
From 600 to 800 BCE was the Zapotec Period. The Mayan calendar
was developed and the people who developed it were teaching writing,
mathematics, and astronomy in urban centers. I doubt they fit Mr.
Biscuits insult because there were no buffaloes in Mesoamerica
butmore to the pointthe Mayans did not live in caves.
The apex of Maya civilization was from 250 CE to 950 CE. Mayan
culture thrived in cities from the Yucatan all the way to Central
America and their ghosts speak from the abandoned cities to this
day: Tikal, Copan, Uxmal, Palenque, and Chichen Itza were all urban
centers of commerce and learning that rose and fell over five hundred
years before the law faculty of Italy in 1308 CE.
Europeans did not discover the very foundation of our
number systemour first zero. The earliest use of zero
known to Europeans was in modern Cambodia in the year 683 CE. The
Mayans had discovered
zero over a thousand years earlier.
I am not informed what civilization discovered the twice-baked
cookie or when.
By 950 CE, the great Mayan cities had been abandoned, but their
story was recorded on codices
and carved in stone on public buildings.
So what was happening in America in 1308 CE, when the Italian
biscuit-man claims we were living in caves? There was at that time
in North America the city of Cahokia,
on the Mississippi River across from modern St. Louis, with a population
greater than any city in Europe at the time. By 1325, there was
the wondrous city of Tenochtitlán in the Valley of Mexico,
the capital of the Aztec Empire.
sheltered a population more than twice that of any city in Europe
in the middle of a lake where the Indians built their own dry land
and maintained a system of causeways and canals with technology
on a level that led some Europeans to call it the impossible
How could an Italian lawyer, an educated man, not know these
things? Principally because the Spanish and Portuguese were exploring
under writs from the Pope to convert any residents of the so-called
New World. Before the killing began, from 1513 onward, the Spanish
would read Indians the Requerimiento, a statement that unless
they submitted themselves to the Christian god as represented by
the colonizers, their property and their lives were forfeit.
Since the Requerimiento was read in Spanish or Latin
to persons innocent of those languages, it was a mere formality,
but the failure to comply did not just forfeit their property and
their lives. By rendering themselves outside Christendom, they unwittingly
made all their arts and sciences works of the Devil. Good Christians
were bound to destroy works of the Devil. Bishop Diego de Landa
explained in 1562, speaking of Mayan glyphs:
We found a large number of books in these characters and,
as they contained nothing in which were not to be seen as superstition
and lies of the devil, we burned them all, which they regretted
to an amazing degree, and which caused them much affliction.
They were the Mayans, who had not disappeared with
the decline of their cities and who still inhabit an area from the
Yucatan down through Central America in modern times. All the records
of their arts and sciences went into the Spanish
fires, excepting four codices. Three are named for cities harboring
the stolen property and one for the museum that kept it for many
years. The Dresden, Madrid, Paris, and Grolier codices.
preface of the Venus Table of the Dresden Codex, first panel
on left, and the first three pages of the Table. (photo courtesy
University of California - Santa Barbara)
All told, less than 250 pages survived to document one of the
great cultures of the world on its own terms. From the four surviving
codices and the carvings on Mayan public buildings, other sources
must be evaluated by the ratio of Mayan to European in the presentation.
This year, the Smithsonian has digitized one of the oldest sources
of information on Mayan culture, Libro
de Sermones Varios en Lengua Quiche (1690). There are multiple
authors over many years, but one of them saw fit to pen a dedication
to Pope Urban IV. We cannot know if that was an act of devotion
or an attempt at survival insurance for the text.
The book is written in four languages: Latin, Spanish, Kiche,
and Kaqchikel. The latter are two of the 33 Mayan languages, not
counting regional variations. Sergio Romero, who teaches in the
Spanish and Portuguese Department of the University of Texas at
Austin, explained to Smithsonian.com
how the evolving language use in this book shows the Mayans resisting
At the same time, the Spanish tried to influence the language
to meet their needs. Romero points out that Kiche has
no word for sin, because the Mayans did not have that
concept and therefore had no need to describe it.
Dominican missionaries repurposed the Kiche word
mak, which meant will, to cover the concept of sin.
Thats not too much of a stretch when in the Bible the forbidden
fruit hangs on the tree of knowledge of good and evil. God creates
that tree in Genesis 2:9 and declares it off limits in Genesis 2:17,
but we know how that turned out. The knowledge of good and evil
is necessary to unleash individual will.
Gabriela Pérez-Báez, curator of linguistics in
the anthropology department at the National Museum of Natural History,
agreed with Romero that the digitization of Libro de Sermones is
vitally important for scholars. Still, she told Smithsonian.com:
To me, being an advocate for linguistic diversity in this
respect of human rights, its very difficult to hold a document
that was an important part of the conversion to Christianity and
all of the abuses. This book was representative of an era during
which colonialism and the associated conversion to Christianity
oppressed the indigenous population in often violent ways.
Disrespect for cultures indigenous to the Americas comes in
understandable and less understandable forms. The Italian lawyers
insult is somewhat understandable as a fruit of his ancestors
sins. The ancestor who sinned would be Cristoforo
Colombo, a citizen of the Republic of Genoa because Italy did
not yet exist.
Even if you could write off the physical destruction of the
Mayan records to the superstition brought to the Americas by a monotheistic
patriarchal desert cult, what could possibly excuse making the claim
that American Indians did not communicate in writing when virtually
all the writings were purposely destroyed?
Then there was the calculation of the person-hours needed to
construct Cahokia leading to the conclusion that American Indians
could not have built the city because they were itinerant hunter-gatherers.
Science is not to blame for that misfirebad science is. But
as the science got better, there was no stampede to correct the
error even when the alternative theory involved space aliens.
The more sophisticated the indigenous cultures appear to have
been, the more criminal their destruction appears, and that crime
is only compounded by denial. The colonists are heavily invested
in the claim that the Americas were empty of civilization when the
Europeans arrived to civilize them.
Assuming Walter Biscotti ever reads this article, I will accept
his apology if it is accompanied by a cup of cappuccino and a nice
chocolate biscotti, chocolate
courtesy of the Mesoamerican civilization he denied.