August 02, 2009

Cracking the Maya Code

Cracking the Maya Code  [official website]TV Program Description
Original PBS Broadcast Date: April 8, 2008

The ancient Maya civilization of Central America left behind an intricate and mysterious hieroglyphic script, carved on monuments, painted on pottery, and drawn in handmade bark-paper books. For centuries, scholars considered it too complex ever to understand—until recently, when an ingenious series of breakthroughs finally cracked the code and unleashed a torrent of new insights into the Mayas' turbulent past. For the first time, NOVA presents the epic inside story of how the decoding was done—traveling to the remote jungles of southern Mexico and Central America to investigate how the code was broken and what Maya writings now reveal.
Cracking the Maya Code--NOVA (2008)learning a lost language, July 2, 2008
By Jeffery Mingo (Homewood, IL USA)

The documentary is diverse in that you see men and women, Americans and Russians, and even the young and the old. The filmed interviews of deceased persons were done so well that they had to write that the persons were deceased. Otherwise, I am sure that viewers would watch this and think that they could e-mail those people. I must say that most anthropological works interview Western and indigenous scholars. This work concludes with saying that living Mayan could now teach some of the writing to their children. However, it would have been nice if some actual Mayan scholars or experts could have had some input here.

The work points to something important: how scholars are not always objective and how they bring their baggage with them. For example, one researcher in the 1800s assumed that some words had drawings of elephants in them, thus reflecting the idea that the Mayans were related to Asian Indians, but that is not the case, just his misinterpretation. The work said one scholar of Maya was a World War I vet so he liked spreading the idea that Mayans were peaceful people who just watched and recorded the stars. The work later shows many drawings that present warfare, murder, and masochism. This reminds me of how some says that Margaret Mead's work on Samoa was tainted by her desire to show at all costs that some cultures have sexually liberated young women.
Breaking the Maya CodeAlong the way you meet an incredibly diverse bunch of people, including Eric Thompson, a sort of "my way or the highway" high school football coach sort of anthropologist who tamped down any dissenting opinion for half a century, even though it turned out his theories are largely incorrect. Or perhaps you'll have a better opinion of a World War II Soviet soldier named Yuri Knorosov, who stumbled across a reproduction of a Maya codex as the war wound down, became intrigued enough to pursue a career in linguistics, and made the most cogent case for the glyphs being syllabic in nature. Perhaps most amazing is the tale of David Stuart, who grew up around the Maya ruins due to being the son of a famous National Geographic explorer, and who, incredibly, at the tender age of 12 started to deliver scholarly papers that dumbfounded the "experts," leading to his becoming the youngest ever recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, and ultimately leading to a final breakthrough which pretty much cracked the Maya code. (It turns out that the Maya language has elements of logography, syllabic and alphabetic systems, something none of the exclusionary "experts" even considered).

This is one astounding piece of filmmaking, built around a story so amazing you'll swear director David Lebrun must be making it up. And yet we're presented with great location shots of various Maya ruins, notably Palenque, as well as some really excellent interviews (some archival) with most of the major 20th century players in the translation efforts, as well as a whirlwind trip through several centuries of a not always happy history. That the ultimate victory came at the hands of purported "amateurs" is a testament to the love a lot of these people felt for the Maya culture in general, not just its beautiful and mysterious language symbols.

The documentary wraps up on a sort of touching note by showing modern Mayans being re-taught to read the heiroglyphs of their language, and by dint of recent translations, their own history which was long suppressed by western "education." It's thrilling to see this long dead language coming back to life, however fitfully, and to see an entire culture reconnecting with its truly awe inspiring past.

Final Thoughts:

Trust me on this one--even if you don't have a particular interest in Maya culture or even less the history of languages and translations, you are going to be spellbound by Breaking the Maya Code. Highly recommended.
Comment:  I agree with these comments. But I'd say Cracking the Maya Code is recommended, not "highly recommended." The first half is a bit more interesting because it deals with the history and mysteries and personalities. The second half gets a little technical and may lose a few viewers. At the end I was thinking, "Has it been only an hour? It seems longer."

So you may not be spellbound, and it'll help if you have a particular interest in Maya culture or the history of languages and translations. But see Cracking the Maya Code if you can.

For more on the subject, see Native Documentaries and News.

Below:  Watch the whole episode via Hulu.

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