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By Samita Sarkar
Recently, I watched an informative PBS documentary about the history of the Maya language called Cracking the Maya Code (watch it online here). Much like the other indigenous civilizations of the Americas that encountered Europeans hundreds of years ago, the Maya experienced cultural and linguistic oppression at the hands of Spanish colonizers. Under the sixteenth-century Spanish inquisition, the Maya were tortured or killed for engaging in “superstitious” behaviour, such as writing in their language or worshipping their gods. A zealous friar, Diego de Landa, made it his mission to destroy Maya hieroglyphs, seeing them as tools of the devil. He sanctioned the mass burning of hundreds to thousands of Maya books—the exact number will never be known.
To us editors, the act of burning countless ancient texts seems worse than blasphemy, but to the mercurial Friar de Landa, it was a powerful method of oppression. And it worked—by the eighteenth century, there was no one left who could read or write Maya.
Only a handful of Maya books survived, and they resurfaced in the late 1880s. Linguists tried for decades to crack the Maya code using only a few books and glyphs carved into ancient Maya pyramids. Written Maya had a script of 800 symbols, and it was taken for granted that these were logographs and not phonetic letters.