One of my students is doing a paper on the Maya for my Legal Systems Very Different from Ours seminar
, and I recently spent some time following up her references and whatever else I could find online. The most interesting conclusion about the institutions was the evidence for parallel evolution, the fact that some were strikingly similar to institutions from unrelated Old World societies. But more interesting, to me, was looking at the sources of information. How does one find out things about a past civilization and how much confidence can one have in the results? In particular, how does one find out things about a civilization that was destroyed five hundred years ago so thoroughly that knowledge of its writing system was completely lost, making all written evidence from before the Spanish conquest unreadable.
It turns out that there are about six different sources of information on the Maya. Each has serious limitations, no one by itself is adequate to establish very much about them, but the combination may give us a fairly accurate picture of what Maya civilization was like. Here is my list:
1. Modern Archeology.
The advantage is that one can dig up ruins, artifacts, other physical remains of a civilization and date them. Physical objects, unlike written texts or oral tradition, can't lie or be mistaken.
The disadvantage is the problem of interpreting what you find—which may well depend in part on what you expect to find. As Chesterton pointed out, future archaeologists might conclude that the 19th century English believed the dead could smell things, as shown by the evidence of flowers in grave sites.
2: The oral traditions and current practices of the descendants of the Maya civilization.
The advantage of that source of information is that there are lots of people who are bilingual in one of the Maya languages and a modern language, so anthropologists who interview them can avoid the problem of making sense of an ancient language and an extinct system of writing.
The disadvantage is that we do not know how much of what current Maya believe about events in the distant past is true, nor to what degree current institutions preserve the institutions of the distant past.
3. A book written in Spanish by a 16th century Spanish Bishop describing his observations shortly after the conquest.
The advantage is that it is written in a language we can read, using a writing system we can read, based on first hand observation.
The disadvantages are, first, that it is first hand observation by a single observer of a society very different from his own, and second that the observer had serious biases that may well have affected what he observed and recorded.
4. Surviving texts written shortly after the conquest, using the Latin alphabet to write in a Maya language:
The advantages are that those texts were written by people with first hand experience of the Maya civilization, using a writing system we can reliably read, in a language that, while it has surely changed somewhat over the centuries since, still exists.
The disadvantages are, first, that there are very few such texts and they do not tell us nearly as much as we would like to know, and second that much of what they tell us may not be true. Maya civilization dates back several thousand years. The period that modern scholars view as its height ended about six centuries before the Spanish arrived. The texts tell us what some sixteenth century Maya believed about their own past—but consider how accurate a picture one would get of fifteenth century Europe based on a book written by a random modern European.
5. Surviving codices, written in a Maya language using the Maya script.
The advantage is that they were written by people about their own civilization, back when it was still a going concern.
The disadvantages are, first, that there are very few of them, almost all having been deliberately destroyed by the Spanish, second that they are written using a writing system knowledge of which was lost more than four hundred years ago, third that they were written for their authors' purposes not ours. That implies not only that they will not tell us all the things we want to know but also that some of what they tell us may not be true, may, for instance, be propaganda in some ancient political or religious controversy. Consider the picture one would get of the European past from a single surviving copy of Mein Kampf or the Malleus Maleficarum.
The problem of the writing system, while serious, is less serious now than it was fifty years ago, since scholars now believe they have cracked the code, figured out almost all of the relation between the written symbols and the spoken language. For a detailed account, see the Wikipedia article
It turns out, assuming the current view is correct, that in the Maya script (as, oddly enough, in Japanese) a single symbol can represent either a word or a syllable. This raises a potential problem of interpretation. Once the syllabic system has been worked out, that plus the surviving version of the language makes it possible to read text represented by its sound. But reading text represented by ideographs requires one to first figure out, possibly by context, what word each symbol stands for. The result might well depend on what the translator expects to find. I do not know enough about the subject to guess how serious that problem is in practice.
6. Surviving inscriptions.
The advantage is that these provide first hand information scattered through both time and space, giving us a picture of Maya civilization not only in its final years but throughout its history.
The disadvantages are, first, whatever problems remain with interpreting the writing system and languages, second the fact that inscriptions on buildings and monuments record what those responsible for inscribing them wanted said, which, as in the previous case, may be neither what we want to know nor reliably true. It would be nice if we had something analogous to the Mesopotamian clay tablets, a large collection of more or less random written material, but we don't.
My conclusion is, first, that we have grounds for a fairly extensive description of Maya civilization, and second that I would have to invest a very large amount of time and effort to form a confident opinion of how good those grounds are, how confident we can be that the description is accurate.