Via comes a link to a story from The Independent, “‘Lost’ sacred language of the Maya is rediscovered” by David Keys:

Linguists have discovered a still-surviving version of the sacred religious language of the ancient Maya—the great pyramid-building civilisation that once dominated Central America.

For years some Maya hieroglyphic texts have defied interpretation—but now archaeologists and linguists have identified a little-known native Indian language as the descendant of the elite tongue spoken by rulers and religious leaders of the ancient Maya.

The language, Ch’orti—spoken today by just a few thousand Guatemalan Indians—will become a living “Rosetta Stone”, a key to unravelling those aspects of Maya hieroglyphic writings which have so far not been properly understood. Over the next few years dozens of linguists and anthropologists are expected to start “mining” Ch’orti language and culture for words and expressions relating to everything from blood-letting to fasting.

Sounds exciting, no? Hot new discovery has linguists and anthropologists all atwitter! But when I googled “John Robertson, Ch’orti” I got a page on The Classification of Mayan Languages, by Peter Mathews, where we find:

Generally it is agreed that there are eight major sub-groupings of the Mayan languages… A more recent proposed classification of the Ch’olan languages has been put forward by John Robertson (1992:3; 1998:10-11; see also Stuart, Houston, and Robertson 1999:II-39), who has argued that the language of the hieroglyphs (for which Robertson, David Stuart, and Stephen Houston have since proposed the label “Classic Mayan”) is the direct ancestor of Ch’olti’, which in turn is the ancestor of Ch’orti’…”

This would seem to imply that Robertson’s classification of Ch’orti as the descendant of Classic Mayan (aka “the sacred religious language of the ancient Maya”) is more than a decade old, which leads me to wonder why it is suddenly a news story. At any rate, the investigation was worth it, because the classification page turns out to be part of a site whose main feature is an online Dictionary of Maya Hieroglyphs (introduction here, search box here).


  1. This must be literature, then, since it has apparently stayed news.
    Anyway, I have been told that the number of successful decipherings of unknown scripts that have not relied on knowledge of (a descendant of) the language the script is used with is exactly zero (0): Linear B is old Greek; heiroglyphics are Coptic; and of course Soylent Green is People. Anyone have a counter-example?

  2. Meroitic. The language is still unknown, but the script was deciphered easily.

  3. hmm. As an ex colleague of David Keys, why am I not surprised?

  4. I always love it when “scientists” or “journalists“ talk about the Maya like they are extinct.
    I believe you will find hundreds, thousands or possibly even millions of Maya names, addresses, phone numbers and emails contemporary with the outsiders that have been hard at work on this particular form of research. While these guys are serious (for the most part,) and have been living some time with the Maya or at least near them when they are working, they are not on the inside socially or culturally. The Maya were the first American Tribe to have an extensive outreach socially, culturally, and scientifically to attest to the fact that they are alive rather than extinct, that they can read much of the old inscriptions (whether they would do so for researchers out to help themselves or those funding their research to Maya burials, remains and culturally significant materials or for personal gain is questionable.)
    The next thing that is interesting is that these “lost” stories turn up in non-American media, especially the written genre. Finally, since the Maya were hardly the type to hang around one place when the going got problematic, (especially in the face of 500 years of physical and cultural genocide against them and their neighbors,) the likelihood of any languages, oral traditions or anything else being utterly lost from the Maya cornucopia of culture and civilization is extremely minimal. This is despite the fervent wishes and intonations of a plethora of researchers and self-proclaimed specialists.
    The good thing is that there are actually researchers and specialists working in the field without trying to be the biggest, best, the only or to suppress the Maya themselves as resources for their own cultural and linguistic record keeping (past, present or future.) In fact, word out on the street in Mayaland is indicative of the development of Mayan hieroglyphs for the researchers and their various abilities or attributes (pro or con.)
    Nobody is extinct, nothing is lost and the People have always lived on Turtle Island, since Creation. Just ask them, they live everywhere on Earth, and it is rightly so since they have always been good at travel and trade, adapting to non-Maya linguistics and cultures, and the sciences as well as literature.
    Plus, it says so all over the place in the earlier script and the Pleistocene inscriptions from the surrounding area in the form of rockart that the people have always been able to write in their own language. Since climactic changes make some forms of the languages and their inscription obsolete for the duration of unrelated weather or cultural patterns, the minimal usage of some forms of language are natural. Again, nothing is “lost.” The researchers who don’t get it are generally a bit myopic or a tad hard of hearing, one can only assume.

  5. Is so-called Mayan similar to Quiché? I’m an ESL teacher who just got a new student fresh off the border whose mother speaks decent Spanish and fluent Quiché, which she refers to as a dialect. Linguistically, it’s a language, the one she and her family speak until they go to school, where Spanish is taught. Their last names are not typically Spanish like Hernández or Martínez. ALso, the mother is totally illiterate in Spanish and just learned how to sign her name, to cash her paycheck.

  6. Sorry not to have gotten back for a bit.
    Actually, Quechua is spoken across the Americas from the Colorado River basin (Yuman and especially the Quechan speak forms of it,) and then of course there is the entire Quechua population of Peru and Bolivia and there abouts. Not a lost language even though some towns and villages seem remote.
    As for Martinez being a Spanish name, it is actually the Spanish version of the Martin (bird) Tribe of the Southwestern North America area. They are currently of the Cahuilla bands, but may have been independent prior to the demise of the ice sheets 22,000-18,000 years ago. Is she rather petite in stature?
    The Choctaw of North America Mississippi Valley are the Chahta of Ancient times and the ancient Chachapoya of the Peruvian coast are their southern-most relatives. The Llacota of the high Bolivian Plateau are the southern-most of the L’Akota peoples (generally more noticeable on the North American Plains,) and the Maya are perhaps as far reaching as the Dutch, Spanish, English and Chines seafarers of the last couple of millennium…but from a longer and more creative period. Somebody is likely to have taken pyramid building to the Mediterranean and up and down the rivers there from the Americas, since the pyramid/mound architectural styles of the Americas are proving to predate most of the assumed “ancient” advanced civilizations there.
    Whenever somebody wants to really study linguistics of the Americas, without the assumption everyone is conveniently extinct or that the Traditional knowledge of thousands of tribal, ethnic and cultural groups is somehow lost or destroyed, hey, just let us know!
    Deb Huglin
    PS Viva Maya!

  7. Brian S. Goodson says

    You seem quite knowledgeable regarding hieroglyphic history, and most especially to the Mayan culture. My initial inquiry into google was to seek information regarding Northeast Woodland Indians, and in particular those in or near the state of Maine. Google revealed a single link to Miq’Maq hieroglyphs/pictographs, and not nearly as much as I had hoped to find. Perhaps you can direct me to a more informative website to more fully investigate the first documented example of written text from the specified region.

  8. Dear Brian,
    Sorry to be a bit slow on the uptake here. We do a lot of work and it hasn’t been to great a year for keeping the Ancestors, their stuff and their inscriptions in the places they were left. Some of the problems involve the agencies and people who are supposed to be enforcing the preservation and protection. Let’s just say we have really been up to our proverbial eyeballs with preservation and enforcement issues of late (the summer of 2004 will be remembered as a living nightmare for Ancient American cultural, inscripted and burial materials being ripped out of in situ places, especially in allegedly protected areas “handled” by governmental agencies.) If you ever try and report vandalism or “excavation” to authorities, and the law enforcement agents threaten to file charges against YOU for making false reports, walk away. Tell whomever the local Tribal Cultural representatives are in that area, look for the nearest cas ino and ask how to contact the Tribe. Things are that bad around here at the moment.
    At any rate, the MiqMaq are the best source for your desired information. In fact, those wonderful MiqMaq are at the forefront of a Northern push to rightly place TK or Traditional Knowledge on an even and equal level with OS or Occidental Science universally, worldwide.
    If you look on Canadian Servers you are likely to find out quite a bit if you put in Traditional Knowledge. Certainly, and rightly so you can get references to the Canadian MiqMaq post-secondary work in this field on (of all places) the Quechua Network from Peru and Bolivia. The link to that (and be sure and get their e.newsletter, it’s great!):
    They have a universal translator program to help you navigate if Spanish or Quechua aren’t your first inscripted languages. (Llahtakunah atipayninwanqa, tihsimuyuta kuyuchisunchismi.
    Con el poder de los pueblos moveremos el mundo.)
    You can look in their archives about Traditional Knowledge; they had a pretty good spread on the MiqMaq university level TK work a while back.
    Are you living by some inscriptions or trying to sort some out that somebody somewhere said were something or another? Sounds like kid stuff, but that is the general format of one of “The 20 questions” we get asked regularly. Plug the words in the blanks…
    Many of the inscriptions of the Northeastern North American continent area are really florid and full to the brim with curly Q’s and primary colors. Every shell, bead and representative individual stitchable object is also used in communications much like the Yaqui/Inca thread knotting (on the grounds you have heard about it or seen it at some point in time, just a guess.) This style survives in Wampum Strips.
    Some “collectors” mistake them for decorative belts or other kinds of apparel or textile technology rather than 3D techniques for communication or monetary exchange in the inscription form. Conceptual communications were everywhere in the Americas prior to the great invasion and the mass-destruction. The destruction was specifically designed to eradicate any and all written indigenous American records. That includes the suppression of indigenous languages and literature, literally!
    Hope that helps. Otherwise you might find out how to write back and forth the with some MiqMaq Senior Center groups or Northeastern Cultural groups (generally included in Tribal agencies and offices in this day and age.)
    Best of luck!
    Deb Huglin
    Chief Archaeologist
    Mississippian Culture Organization
    Repatriation Archaeologist for the Wolf Clan of the Chahta
    Nobody is extinct.
    Nothing is lost.
    The People have always been on Turtle Island and Parrot Island since Creation.
    PS For everybody out there…skip the great migration propaganda, it is strictly displacement indoctrination to facilitate genocide against indigenous populations for some outside group’s economic gain. The Americas have been inhabited by people back to the period in which they were both islands, thus the Turtle Island and Parrot Island references by (who else?) the ancient indigenous populations. The Americans tried to explain it to the invaders for generations, but the invaders had come from a great “Dark” age in which they managed to lose that kind of historic information. The Americans didn’t quite know what to do with the uneducated and uninitiated seemingly cultureless foreign invaders. After 500 years of it, everybody seems to finally be catching on. We shall see. Don’t get discouraged. Get the facts.

  9. Say, I just got a lesson in Maya Tribal groups in Belize.
    Somehow I missed that one of the Maya Tribal groups is called Quechua or something close. Makes perfect sense. They are between The Foothills of the Andes and the Colorado River Basin in the Central America area. I am sure there are plenty of people who are aware of that TK (Traditional Knowledge) fact. Funny how linguistic and anthropological groups from a variety of post-secondary educational institutions in the “Western” and “Old” world seem to have missed that point when they were out gleaning artifacts, gold, slaves, cultural info for indoctrination and displacement tactics. Same goes for the inclusion of misinformation in the educational and informational materials available to all of us in universities and libraries.
    Seems it wasn’t deemed convenient by some individual or group for the Quechua Tribal groups to cover such an extensive area of the Americas without much habitation break in both modern and ancient times. From Bolivia to Wyoming is quite a stretch of turf to cover relatively continuously. Again, displacement for economic gain by non-indigenous groups would be the most likely motivation for such a massive misinformation. Languages are not dying off as the suggestion that they are conveniently isolated would imply by many “scientists” in those “fields”. That is hoowee.
    Fortunately the Maya have just as high a civilization, culture and indigenous knowledge base or educational system as they did in pre-invasion times. Now they are also armed with the educational and political science systems that invading groups like the British and Spanish have provided in attempts to assimilate them. That backfired. Now the Maya do many languages, scientific and political specialties, and they are still doing their own traditional activities. However a bunch of unrelated foreigners are interested in deciphering Maya inscriptions and acting like they are gone from this Earth. I am here to tell ya the Maya are virtually everywhere I have been, across the Americas and in Europe.
    I was also thrilled to see Maya script on the Belizean paper money along with the English and other ideographs. Check out Belizean $20 bills for an example. Another tribute to the ongoing anti-extinction campaign by Maya cultural groups! Something tells me that all those universities and museums that have been out trashing Maya archaeological and Ancestral sites over the years are gonna want to undo the damages and give back the materials they pilfered without much cultural contact with the locals. The local Maya know exactly what was done and what is missing, as well as who dunnit.
    I do not think the Maya of the local areas were really given much opportunity to protest or participate accordingly. Those involved in this kind of “research” wanted the Maya to be conveniently extinct for outsider economic gain through far fetched and unrealistic as well as isolationist pseudo-sciences. Archaeology is not something you do without including potential descendents or continuous use groups associated with the archaeological sites. There are actually places out in the middle of Maya Co-op farms that are literally trenched and dug up with everything at the site laid open to the ravages of weather and time. Thankfully they are accidentally or purposefully inhabited by living coral snakes in this day and age. That should reduce the number of pothunters poking around in somebody else’s Ancestral past.
    Just a little FYI.
    ; )
    giveusbackourbones at yahoo dot com

  10. Im just trying to get in touch with my N.A. side, and was looking up info.
    ANybody know of Chipewa or Chikesaw history?

  11. Try looking up Ojibwe…get ahold of the different Tribes. Go visit. Get registered. Eat wild rice! Be Chippy! Chickasaw…tons of them, too. Nobody particularly extinct here, it should be relatively easy. Northern Mississippi Valley Tribes.
    ; )

  12. Jay MORRISON says

    We just ran across a beautiful precolombian jade pendant here in Costa Rica. These are typically found in ancient graves here, but this piece was very unusual because it had some hieroglyphics etched on it that apparently are Mayan!! Not too surprising, given that apparently all the jade found here originally came from Guatamala, but very few pieces have ever been found that were made into something and engraved before being brought here. Now we are very interested in finding someonewho would be able and willing to translate the message written on this piece. Help!!!!

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