We Repeat the Mayas' Faults

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Monday, February 21, 2011

Majowie Palenque

Credit: Monika Rogozinska

Majowie Nikolai in Caracol1 fOT. Archives of Nikolai Grube

Prof. Nikolai Grube in Caracol

Credit: Archives of Nikolai Grube

Prof. Nikolai Grube, anthropologist, archeologist, art historian and epigrapher: When we get to know the Mayas civilization, we see that the people 1500 years ago faced the same problems we face today.

Interview by Monika Rogozinska

Monika Rogozinska: Is it true that the Mayan hieroglyphics upon which American archeologists pondered were subjects of secret attempts to decipher by Russian military intelligence cryptologists?

Prof. Nikolai Grube: Yes. A special group in Novosybirsk helped by computers tried to find a mathematical model that would allow to read Mayan hieroglyphics for the glory of socialism and the Soviet Union, They failed.

Yet a Soviet man did it, a solitary genius.

Yuri Knorozov was a young Egyptologist who, as a soldier, arrived in Berlin with the

Soviet Army at the end of WWII. On a street of the burning city he found cases filled with books. One contained books about the Mayas. He took them home. He wrote his scientific dissertation on the Mayan hieroglyphics solely on the basis of his war bounty. Without an access to photographs of other inscriptions, or to Western publications, he had to interrupt his work. A depression caused by his isolation in the USSR did not overshadow his pride from his participation in the Great Patriotic War. He took up studies of other writing systems: from Easter Island, ancient India, Mohenjo-daro civilization.

You talked with him in Mexico. This means that he did succeed to travel abroad.

Only after Gorbatchev’s perestroika. I met him in one of the hottest places in Mexico, He wore warm underclothing under his jacket – he was always ready for everything.  

How did the world learn about his discoveries?

 Knorozov published several articles in Russian, in the USSR and also in Mexico, but not in a scientific periodical, but in a working-class newspaper. It didn’t even occur to scientists to look there for news about Mayan hieroglyphics. In the 1960’s, the American Michael Coe heard about Knorozov owing to his wife. They together translated his publications into English. Knorozov was a genius without doubt. When all the Marxist rhetoric is removed one can see that this is a great work.

Research on Mayan secrets always attracted uncommon personages. In the middle of the 19th century, the American John Stevenson became a consul in the sole purpose to reach Copan in today’s Honduras, a city overgrown by the jungle about which he read in a Spanish account considered then a fairytale. He discovered a city described as “Mayan Paris” because of its beauty. Another American, 25 years old Edward Thompson also became a consul just to be able live in the deserted Mayan city of Chichen Itza in the Yucatan and to have the possibility to dive in the cenote – a natural well – to prove that the Mayas were drowning people in sacrifice. And you, how did you find your way into the Mayan world?

I grew up in Cologne, in Germany, in the middle of Roman excavations. I love archeology since I was a child, yet, unfortunately, I was repelled from what I saw around me due to my hatred of Latin. I yearned to do something that would become a domain of my own and where no one could dictate anything to me. Still a boy, I started to collect books about the Mayas. I learned by myself. Then I studied Mayan archeology and anthropology at the University in Hamburg. I was 22 years old when I went to Mexico and fell in love with it at first sight. I was interested by the past, but also by the life of contemporary Mayas. I spent two years in a Yucatan village. I learned the Mayan language from its inhabitants.

 Is that the language used in Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto”?

 The same. When I saw „Apocalypto” for the first time, I was a bootleg copy downloaded from the internet, with Russian subtitles - a language I don’t know. I only understood what the Mayas said.

You worked in the jungle-engulfed Mayan city of Caracol, in Belize, a former British colony. The site is difficult to access and His Majesty Elizabeth’s special forces train there in the art of survival. While on your archeological trips, you took you small children along.

 My wife is an archeologist, a Maya form Belize. My daughter was two years old and my son about three when we took them to Caracol.

In case of emergency, we could rely on the help of British special forces. When a worker was crushed by a falling tree, a quick helicopter flight to a hospital saved his life.

 How does it feel to stay with children in a jungle full of snakes and mosquitoes? On my way to Caracol i stayed in a small hotel built of wood. When I sat in the reception lounge a large tarantula trotted by.

 One must be careful. Children may only stay in open areas, where there are no trees and where grass is mown short. On dry grounds, there are no mosquitoes during daytime. In the morning and after 5 pm, when mosquitoes are aggressive, children remain in small wooden bungalows. There is always a person who never lets them out of sight. Children learn fast. My daughter was three years old when she caught a tarantula ant let it walk on her arms. If you don’t irk an tarantula, it won’t bite you. Unless it feels endangered, a scorpion will not harm you. We never had any problem yet.

 Are local people friendly?

 Always and even more when you travel with children.

Now the children are 10 and 12 years old. They live in Bonn, but they spend a large part of their lives traveling with us through the jungle in Belize, Guatemala or Mexico. They grow in two worlds. And they like both.

 What do you thing about Gibson’s film?

 „Apocalypto” is a film about the end of the world. Gibson’s theory is that every society is responsible for the faith of its people, and the Maya were an example of a society so degenerated and bloodthirsty that it merited its faith. I don’t like this film because it is excessively violent. Human sacrifices were infrequent in Mayan society. The most precious of sacrifices were drops of royal blood the ruler drew himself.

 Gibson thinks that a society can be conquered only if it begins to disintegrate from within. Why then the cities of the Mayan state that were located on the lands that nowadays include Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and Belize were abandoned in the beginning of the 10th century?

 This is one of Mayan archeology’s utmost questions. In my opinion, this was mainly caused by conflicts, by wars between the elites and dynasties, quite resembling the European ones. Evidence exists to support this: cites burnt and razed, damaged effigies of rulers in abandoned palaces and damaged steles with images of kings.

 One of the wars between Mayan went on for 154 years. European states fought many wars, including ones that lasted thirty or a hundred years, but the civilization survived. Why did the other one fell? What did they fight for? Rule?

 For rule, for access do natural resources, for prestige. We can’t say that the Maya “annihilated” themselves. The Mayan society survived, although it changed. When the Spaniards arrived at the onset of the 16th century, the Mayas still lived and they continue to live today. Yet the institution of monarchy was destroyed and the faith of the survivors changed in a dramatic way.

Did the elites mutually kill themselves?

Most probably did. Surviving leaders run away or they were killed by discontented peasants. With the elite also disappeared the knowledge about how to organize agriculture, construct canals or waterworks and maintain the ecosystem’s stability. The survivors became simple farmers.

„Mayan Paris” – Copan not only is ruined, but human bones that were discovered revealed illnesses caused by hunger.

In Copan, one may see that farming land was becoming scarce owing to a growing population. Every scrap of land was intensively cultivated, thus causing soil erosion. In addition, the best land was taken by royal palaces and by buildings belonging to the elites. Mutiny was unavoidable

What can we learn from the Mayan history?

Why, we do not learn from history, yet we should. We keep repeating the same mistakes the Maya made. We destroy the environment. They destroyed the tropical forest over large areas without understanding the consequences of such action. This caused water penury and hunger, in consequence leading to the fall of the city-states.

When we get to know this civilization, we see that the people faced the same problems we face today. They organized their state in the same way. They lived in cities. They began to write books, they initiated systems of taxes and social dependencies, measurement of time. It becomes obvious that no matter the time and place, man has similar yearnings, aspirations and behaves similarly.

The May knew how to predict solar and moon eclipses. Did they invent themselves astronomy, mathematics and writing?

Themselves yes, although they build their culture by drawing inspiration from the Olmecs, for instance. The Mayan civilization developed already around 1200 B.C., much earlier than we thought until recently. They began to write much earlier than any other Mesoamerican civilization. Their culture radiated upon others.

The word „cocoa” derives from the Mayan language. The cocoa bean functioned as a currency, and a cocoa beverage was the drink of the elites. Are there any other words that made such an international career?  

The British pirates saw a white shark on a corral reef in the Caribbean Sea and they learned from the Mayas that it is a “shok”, shark in English. The English word “hurricane”, as well as similarly sounding words in various other languages, probably comes from the Mayan word “Hurakan” designating the god of thunder and storms.

In the 1980’s only five scholars in the world learned or attempted to decipher Mayan hieroglyphics. You were one of them.

Each one of us tried to do this since his or her childhood: David Stuart, Linda Schele, Peter Mathews… a truly small group. We followed the trail indicated by Knorozov. We drew hieroglyphics, which we then discussed and mutually exchanged. We sent thousands of letters, and this was before the Internet. We deciphered many a Mayan script. Today, we observe in Europe a great rise of interest in the Mayas, something unthinkable earlier because of the scarcity of information and research funds.

Yet, in Europe, this still is an elitist interest. Excavations are organized only by a few universities: the French Sorbonne, also a Spanish one, German, Slovak and two Polish: The Jagiellonian University and the University of Warsaw. Slovak research is funded privately by a businessman fascinated by the Mayas. The man manufactures tractors, cheese and wine. The Warsaw archeologist Jan Szymański, to earn funds that would enable him to participate in the study of the Mayan world, worked as a rickshaw man in London. Who is financing your research?

The German Scientific Foundation and the University in Bonn..

Are we already capable of reading all the Mayan writings?

About 70% of them. I am certain that the next decade will bring solution. Particularly since a large group of young people expresses its interest in the Mayan hieroglyphics.

Owing to your collaboration with University of Warsaw.

Together with. Prof. Mariusz Ziolkowski – the head of the Pre-Columbian Studies Center of the University of Warsaw, we have organized in 2003 the world’s first Mayan language’s internet course. It proved to be a great success. It is still continuing. I keep meeting young students from Mexico, Italy, France or Germany who tell me that they were taught Mayan hieroglyphics through the Internet it is the University of Warsaw.

Prof. Nikolai Grube (born in 1962) is an anthropologist, archeologist, art historian and epigrapher. At the University in Bonn, he heads the largest pre-Columbian studies department in Germany (Institut für Griechische und Lateinische Philologie, Romanistik und Altamerikanistik, Abteilung für Altamerikanistik und Etnologie). He worked in Mayan cities’ archeological sites in Copan (Honduras), Caracol (Belize), Palenque (Mexico), Yaxha (Guatemala). Currently he is in charge of a project in Uxul (Mexico).

Monika Rogozinska – journalist of the „Rzeczpospolita” Polish daily newspaper, Chair of the Polish Chapter of The Explorers Club.