Many of the [Maya's] greatest cities emptied, as did much of the countryside around them. Incredibly, some of the last inscriptions are gibberish, as if scribes had lost the knowledge of writing and were reduced to meaningless imitation of their ancestors.

The above quote is from the book 1491 by Charles Mann, which I'm reading. This quote pertains to the Maya collapse. Many Mayan scripts have been deciphered, but some later ones have not.

First, is this true? There is no source for this particular claim, but 1491 seems to be quite well regarded. I know very little about precolumbian history, so perhaps it's so well known by more knowledgeable people that it isn't worth footnoting.

Secondly, what theories explain why the meaning of later Maya texts is obscure? Some possibilities that occurred to me -

  1. Writing had some kind of ritual significance beyond its practical value. It was believed that stopping would offend the gods even more, even though whatever utilitarian need to write no longer applied.

  2. Similar to above, but scribes kept going because they were paid by the word. They had to keep writing if they wanted to eat, even if there was nothing to write.

  3. It was some kind of protest by the scribes - a kind of go-slow.

  4. The scribes had to start writing in an otherwise unknown language for some political reason (e.g. the overthrow of native elites by foreign elites). If this is true, one would expect mathematical analysis to reveal some kind of natural language pattern in the characters.

  5. They started writing in some kind of cipher. Again, if so it should be possible to verify that the writing is not meaningless, even if its actual meaning is obscure.

Have any of these explanations been proposed? If not, what has?

  • 4
    I don't know, but my hypothesis is that the situation is similar to why Islamic writing appears on Medieval English coins. Writing is both decorative and a vehicle for meaning. When the semantic content vanishes, the decorative value remains. By the way, your last hypothesis would be very difficult to support; there is no difference between a well done cipher and gibberish unless you have the key, which we do not.
    – MCW
    Feb 18, 2021 at 17:00
  • 3
    That sounds like a good possibility. Re: ciphers, if we assume that any supposed cipher was no more sophisticated than a pre-1800 European cipher, we would still see individual words and grammar - some characters would be more common than others, and be more likely to appear before or after other characters.
    – Ne Mo
    Feb 18, 2021 at 17:28
  • 3
    that analysis of cipher only applies to alphabetic ciphers; the Mayan script was not alphabetic, but logographic. I'm not entirely sure how to construct a logographic cipher. I'm extremely skeptical that a logographic cipher would reveal grammar. But I think I stray beyond the subject.
    – MCW
    Feb 18, 2021 at 17:36
  • 3
    A quick skim of the Maya script article on WP suggests that our understanding of it improved by leaps and bounds in the 1980s/90s - I wonder if Mann was a few years behind the curve here? Feb 18, 2021 at 20:16
  • 3
    Unfortunately, the book reference may be inadequate to really deal with the issue. Is this relating to pseudo-glyphs found on pottery which may have been produced by illiterate outsiders? An 87 page PDF paper Mimicry, Decoration, or Dialect Variation? attempts to categorize the items, indicating an answer may be beyond the scope of our format.
    – justCal
    Feb 19, 2021 at 0:37

1 Answer 1


Simplification or decadence

First, what we know today about Mayan script is that it was logosyllabic, i.e. there were around about 550 logograms (whole words), 150 syllabograms (which represent syllables) and around 100 glyphs representing names of gods or geographical places. This is considered as an usual evolution of the script, i.e. moving from first relatively primitive logographic script to more advanced syllabic script. Again, as usual Mayan script was first and foremost used for religious, magical, ceremonial and official purposes, i.e. stuff concerning elite of Mayan society. Much less for mundane things like IOU 10 sacks of grain. Such pattern was common in other scripts, languages and civilizations, literacy gradually moving from top to bottom and in that process becoming less ritualistic and more practical, and more simplified.

However, what we do know about Mayan script is a fact that such simplification was never fully completed. If we look at Mayan glyphs, we do see that they are rather complex and elaborate, each of them almost work of art and not something you would use to quickly write down something. Technology of writing was also rather complex. Beside usual carvings in stone, pottery and reliefs, there were some writings on paper, clothes and wood. Later two could be considered as beginnings of more modern "temporary writing" in a sense it was not meant to last for ages, while Mayan codices written on paper were somewhere between stone inscriptions and those made on wood. But, most of surviving Mayan texts are of the higher nature, i.e. they concern religion, astronomy (closely connect to religion) and biographies of rulers or nobles. We could be biased in this manner, because less important texts written on perishable materials tend to disintegrate, but that is what we have now.

Where this leaves us with our main question ? Basically, there could be two answers :

  1. Decadence: We do know that scribe caste was highly valued in Mayan society, closely connected with priests, perhaps hereditary. They did have their own schools where the art of writing was taught. In such circumstances, it was natural they would want to preserve their position and prestige, even in the situation when society around them was slowly crumbling. Most likely knowledge what do certain less used glyphs represent was slowly lost, this knowledge rot then moved to those more frequently used. However, text was still needed for religious rituals, and scribes were still being payed to deliver it, perhaps blindly copying it from older artifacts. Significance of message and meaning of text slowly became less important, there were few people left able to read them anyway. Finally, it devolved in ritual ornamentation, tradition passed down the generations and original purpose being lost. It should be noted that this knowledge rot was likely never full, because there were literate priests even at the time of arrival of Spanish conquistadors.

  2. Simplification is a second option, less possible but still relevant. First of all, it should be noted that deciphering of Mayan texts is relatively new invention. Relación de las cosas de Yucatán which is a basis on current knowledge of Mayan script was considered as almost useless until Knorozov proposed that Mayan script was actually to a large extent syllabic (not completely logographic and certainly not alphabetic as de Landa thought). Considering that large number of Mayan books from the latter era were lost or destroyed on purpose, but also the fact that in that latter (postclassical) period Mayan civilization was effectively divided into individual cities, it is relatively possible that we currently do not understand text that looks like gibberish. Or in other words, glyphs that look like gibberish are in fact written in evolved system, perhaps moving to complete syllabic system with some simplifications. and perhaps this new and evolving system was not known trough entirety of divided Mayan civilization. It could be local invention that simply didn't spread wide enough. Such things did happen in other parts of the world, with whole Romance group of languages evolving from Latin, and slowly accumulating various differences between them.

  • 3
    Well done. Clear.
    – MCW
    Feb 20, 2021 at 15:28
  • Curious...why do you think option 2 is less possible? After all, we know lots of scripts that undergo redeployment in meaningful ways. I'm not aware of any known, nor many suspected, to have devolved into gibberish, so a priority 2 would seem more likely than 1, yes?
    – C Monsour
    Feb 22, 2021 at 0:23
  • @CMonsour Don't get me wrong, I would personally prefer option 2. But current mayanist mainstream prefers option 1. It is presently claimed that more than 90% of Mayan texts could be understood , inferring there is little chance that there is some completely different transcription for reminder. Therefore, texts presently not understood are either slightly to moderately different, or simply gibberish.
    – rs.29
    Feb 22, 2021 at 8:47
  • Surely the percentage of extant texts that can be read is not in itself meaningful, since that depends on what was lost or not lost and can't be taken to be representative of the percentage of writings that we could read today if we had access to all the writings. For all we know, that's 5% rather than 90%. It could basically be anything.
    – C Monsour
    Feb 22, 2021 at 12:19
  • Great answer. I was kind of imagining that scribes who previously wrote legible texts stopped doing that and started writing indecipherable ones (as in, the same individuals were authors of both meaningful and apparently meaningless texts). From your answer it sounds like the currently unreadable texts came a long time later.
    – Ne Mo
    Feb 22, 2021 at 12:42

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.