Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Deducing the Past: The Maya as an Example

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.


Tibor said...

There is a missing "that" after the word civilization in the first paragraph.

Tibor said...

Also, it is Kampf not Kamp.

Otherwise, I would say this is a problem also with various European tribes and their cultures during the Roman times. Most of the history books were written by Romans or Greeks and one has to look with suspicion at those records, since they both seemed to look down on any foreigners (including each other...at least before Greeks were conquered by the Romans and some of their historians started praising Rome). But at least there we have much more material to work with, both written and archeological.

David Friedman said...

Tibor: Thanks. Errors fixed.

It isn't just the European tribes. Most of our written sources for the medieval period were written by clerics, and so show that world filtered though a particular set of lenses. For the Islamic world, almost anything written about Ali has to be viewed with suspicion, since he was the central figure for the Shia/Sunni split.

Tibor said...

But aren't there also some arabian sources on Europe? They will be also biased, naturally, but in a different way. And prior to the crusades, the bias would not probably be that severe. I don't know how numerous these are , however.

David Friedman said...

I don't think there is much on Europe in the Islamic sources, aside from stuff on the Byzantines.

Anonymous said...

Tibor, I must say that I find many of the Greek and Roman authors evenhanded. Herodotus and Tacitus did not look down on others.

There is very little in Arabic sources on Europe. They were not interested in us. As far as we know, Homer has not yet been translated into Arabic.

David, any chance of seeing some of the conclusions of your student's essay? It sounds fascinating.

Tibor said...

undertallen: I have not read the original works, only history books of today that refer to them...so that is of course another source of noise. However, my impression is that they considered all that was not Greek or not Roman as obviously inferior in terms of development and social institutions (much as a lot of people do it in the euro-atlantic civilization today).

I think there are some record on northern germanic tribes by arabian merchants. But again, I only rely on a book saying "according to the travel notes written by this and that arabian merchant ...". This could be an exceptional case, though.

Anonymous said...

Tibor, I have only dabbled in ancient literature, but I am going to finish Herodotus soon. Herodotus is a very interesting read and I thoroughly recommend The Histories. Tacitus I read a long time ago.

Caesar's Conquest of Gaul is next on my list.

One problem the Arabs had is that the world was divided into the lands of Islam and the lands of war, i.e., the parts of the world where Islam did not rule. A Muslim could inhabit no such lands. Lately, the Muslim Brotherhood (someone wrote, it might have been earlier) have invented the house of predication or house of safety (my memory is a bit foggy, so don't swear by it).

David Friedman said...

Tibor's reference to a record of northern Europeans by an arabian merchant is probably to Ibn Fadlan, whose adventures, with a chunk of Beowulf pasted into the middle, were the subject of Michael Crichton's Eaters of the Dead. I believe Ibn Battuta also wrote about his travels in western Europe.

I don't think there was any prohibition on Muslims living in lands ruled by non-Muslims—certainly many of them did and do.

Anonymous said...

David, I hadn't thought of this for a three or four years and can't find a reference, it might be in one of Bernard Lewis books. My Moroccan friends told me it was correct though, and something that Muslims discussed as a problematic issue.

The basic problem is that whilst Christianity is an orthodoxy, i.e., one has to believe the right things, Islam is an orthopraxy, where you have to practice the correct things, i.e. follow Islamic law. And if, as in Europe, human law stands above religious law, that is strictly speaking impossible.

A Moroccan friend explained to me how practical it is that humans do not have to bother with inheritance law, since it is already written in the Koran that daughters inherit half of what sons do.

I might be wrong, but before approximately the beginning of the 20th century, except for a few scattered individuals, there were hardly any Muslims living in countries where they were not the dominant political power. India would be the exception, but only because the British conquered it from the previous Muslim rulers.

According to Braudel (Grammaire des civilisations), Hinduism was going the same way as the Aztec culture under Spanish rule, i.e., about to vanish, and it was only saved through the British colonisation.

David Friedman said...

I believe that there was a substantial Muslim population in southern Italy under Norman rule, including Muslim troops. There were substantial numbers of Muslims living in Spain under Christian rule until the expulsion in 1492.

Why would you expect Hinduism to have vanished? Muslims only ruled part of India, and the parts they ruled did not end up as primarily Muslim.

Anonymous said...

David, essentially because I am sometimes a fool that do not double check my sources. I read a summary of Braudel who stated that Hinduism was only saved by the British. Then I read the first half of Braudel to check, but did not finish the whole section. It begins on page 232:

Hinduism would have survived, but the military occupation was brutal.

This conquest, successful after countless setbacks, ended in wholesale military occupation. The Muslims, who were few in number and based solely in the larger towns, could not rule the country except by systematic terror. Cruelty was the norm - burnings, summary executions, crucifixions or impalements, inventive tortures. Hindu temples were destroyed to make way for mosques. On occasion there were forced conversions. If ever there were an uprising, it was instantly and savagely repressed: houses were burned, the countryside was laid waste, men were slaughtered and women were taken as slaves.


India survived only by virtue of its patience, its superhuman power and its immense size.

Anonymous said...

David, regarding Sicily and Spain, I think you would agree that these examples are due to Muslims having lost the power they previously had, and deciding to compromise and stay on.

From what I understand, Hindus had similar problems that Muslims had. They could not live in non-caste societies. To get round this, merchants founded trading colonies, or converted to Buddism.

David Friedman said...


You are correct about the case of southern Italy (mainland as well as Sicily) and Spain. But I'm pretty sure there were colonies of Muslims, in particular traders, in China, which they had never ruled.

There's a fairly detailed Wikipedia article on the general issue at:


If it is correct, the lands of peace include lands not ruled by Muslims where Muslims can freely practice their religion, at least if such lands border on Muslim ruled lands. And there are a variety of other classifications. I can't find any support for the idea that Muslims are not supposed to live in lands not under Muslim rule.

Anonymous said...

The key phrase is "freely practice their religion". For Muslims this used to mean "following Sharia law", since Islam is an orthopraxy. Being a Muslim requires more "space" than being a Christian where you only need to believe the right thing. It is easier to be a closet Christian. "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's" is possible for Christians, but not, strictly speaking, for Muslims.

And all in all, "freely practice" one's religion put a break on a great many things. I doubt that this was possible for Muslims in any European Christian country, except Britain and Holland before 1800. Jews could, from 1782 settle in four cities in Sweden. From 1838, they were allowed to settle anywhere and even become Swedish citizens. In historic texts, Muslims are not mentioned. They are simply unheard of. But Sweden, like other European countries had many non-conformist Christian denominations where members met in secret. They had too...

Had Islam simply been a private matter, there would surely have been Muslims who only prayed and practiced in their homes.

Btw, sort of on the subject, since you are into Nordic literature, have you read Frans G Bengtsson's "The Long Ships"? Sort of on the subject, since Orm and Toke become slaves in Muslim lands and convert to Islam.

VangelV said...

But I'm pretty sure there were colonies of Muslims, in particular traders, in China, which they had never ruled.

The Hui people in China lived peacefully under Chinese rule where they were allowed to follow their own customs and integrated their laws with the dominant Chinese legal systems. I suggest that if you are ever in Xi'an you visit the Great Mosque and talk to some of the scholars who can tell you about the long history of the Hui people in China. The story is a simple one. Unlike followers of some of the other religions they left everyone alone and concentrated on trade.