Secrets of the Maya

Could the world really end in 2012—a date referenced on a Maya calendar? The UT expert who helped crack the Maya code says the truth is wilder than you know.

[Watch videos of David Stuart in action.]

A heavy stone wheel, engraved with inscrutable hieroglyphs, spins in the night sky. “If you believe the Maya calendar, on December 21 polar shifts will reverse the Earth’s gravitational pull and hurtle us all into space,” we hear Matt Damon say. But just in case the Maya were wrong, Damon assures us, TD Ameritrade has some great 401(k) options.

Then there’s the Chevy Super Bowl ad: a man drives a pickup through a post-apocalyptic wasteland. A newspaper headlined “2012 MAYAN APOCALYPSE” clings to the remnants of a traffic light. “Where’s Dave?” the driver asks another survivor. “Dave drove a Ford,” his friend answers, as dead frogs rain from the sky.

The apocalypse is everywhere. In commercials, movies like 2012 and Apocalypto, even a Saturday Night Live skit with Katy Perry. “Independent researcher” John Major Jenkins sells books with titles like Maya Cosmogenesis 2012. On the website, the Deluxe 2-Person Survival Kit retails for $98.99.

What gets lost in all this noise is the ancient Maya themselves. We keep hearing that their calendar predicted the world’s end on Dec. 21, 2012—due to astrological alignment, Jesus, or aliens, depending on whom you ask. But what did the Maya really believe?

Until recently, that question was impossible to answer. That’s because our knowledge of the ancient Maya—a vast civilization that colonized Mesoamerica long before Europeans arrived—has long lagged behind that of other ancient peoples. For centuries, Maya hieroglyphs were almost completely unreadable. Only in the past three decades have researchers deciphered 90 percent of the glyphs.

“Maya studies today is where Egyptology was in the 19th century,” says UT professor David Stuart, the world’s leading Maya epigrapher, or hieroglyph reader. “We’re really just beginning to discover who they were.”

So what did the Maya say about 2012? “The truth,” Stuart says, “is more amazing than the fiction.”

From Austin To Antigua

The University of Texas is a Maya studies powerhouse. Culturally, logistically, and even geographically, UT exerts a magnetic pull on scholars of Mesoamerica—the region stretching from Mexico through Central America.

UT’s Benson Latin American Collection is the second-largest Latin American research library in the U.S. (only the Library of Congress is bigger). In the last five years, the Benson’s priceless resources have drawn researchers from New Zealand, Japan, Iceland, and Pakistan, plus more than 30 Latin American countries. And UT Press has published 65 books on the Maya, more than any known university press.

Texas also has serious manpower. More than a dozen UT professors are Mesoamerica experts, and they work in fields as diverse as archaeology, history, cultural anthropology, linguistics, art history, Spanish language and literature, and fine art. UT’s graduate program in Latin American history is consistently ranked first in the nation, beating out Harvard and Yale. And Austin is closer to Mexico City than to Washington, D.C. Some research sites are accessible by direct flight.

Last year UT even partnered with Guatemalan nonprofit Fundación Pantaleón to open a Mesoamerican research center in Antigua. An impeccably restored 17th-century mansion, Casa Herrera is a home base for UT students studying abroad in Guatemala. The house also hosts a range of academic workshops and symposia—including the definitive conference on Maya hieroglyphs, the Maya Meetings.

A Meeting Of The Minds

The city of Antigua drifts in through the open classroom door: ice-cream vendors’ shouts of “Heladooo!” and the rumble of three-wheeled taxis, called tuk-tuks for their sputtering motors, on cobblestone streets. One of three nearby volcanoes puffs smoke on the horizon. The air is thick with the honeyed fragrance of jacaranda blossoms.

None of these distractions can touch the spellbound Maya Meetings participants. Half academics, half hobbyists—Ivy League PhDs comparing notes with software engineers and nurses who study the Maya on weekends—they share a fascination with mysterious hieroglyphs. All eyes are on David Stuart.

Stuart’s manner is as modest as his wardrobe (Converse sneakers, faded jeans, wrinkled shirt), but still he captivates. Bent over a projector, Stuart writes glyphs as deftly as his own name. “So this part of the story is all about the king’s birth,” he explains, “and the next section talks about his accession to the throne.”

After class, one man chases after him. “David, can I get a photo?” Stuart’s face falls for a moment; despite his frequent media appearances, he’s clearly uncomfortable being a celebrity. But then he smiles and says, “Of course.”

Stuart may be the star of the Maya Meetings—when he finishes his final speech, a chant of “More! More!” goes up—but the glue holding them together is the legacy of Linda Schele, PhD ’80, who died in 1998.

Until the 1970s, Maya glyph decipherment was a piecemeal task performed by scholars puzzling in isolation across the globe, from the United States to Russia to Britain. Schele changed that forever. By founding the Maya Meetings in 1977, and by sheer force of personality, she brought researchers together, creating a culture of teamwork that led to huge breakthroughs—including a major one by Stuart when he was just 18.

“Without Linda, I would not be in this field at all,” Stuart says. “She was the node for so many networks.”

The two met when Stuart was 10 years old. The son of archaeologists, Stuart tagged along with his father on a visit to the National Geographic offices in Washington, D.C. There, he quietly watched a woman drawing Maya glyphs. “Hey, that’s a fire glyph,” the 10-year-old said.

“She looked at me for a long moment,” he says, “and then she said, ‘You’re right, kid, that’s a fire glyph.’”

It wasn’t just a lucky guess. Stuart spent many boyhood summers at the remote jungle sites where his parents worked. Living in a thatched hut and sleeping in a hammock were the norm. On a trip to the ruins of Cobá, in Mexico, the mysterious stone markings first caught the little boy’s eye. With a borrowed pad of paper, 8-year-old Stuart began to sketch.

“I was a kid who liked puzzles,” he remembers. “It was pure visual play. The signs were fun to draw, they looked weird, and it was cool to figure out how they went together.”

When he met Schele that day at National Geographic, Stuart found a kindred spirit. Schele, too, thought hieroglyphs were pure fun. And she took the little boy seriously because, like him, she had no formal education on the Maya. That fact didn’t worry either of them.

“Linda believed that everyone, from all walks of life, had something meaningful to contribute,” remembers UT art history professor Julia Guernsey, PhD ’97, who studied under Schele. “She wanted to talk to everyone—to engineers who were thinking about hydraulic systems, to doctors who might know how tough it was to extract a human heart from someone’s chest.”

Schele’s open-minded attitude still permeates the field of Maya studies. “Academic pigeonholes don’t work for what we do,” Stuart says. “Every discipline, every fresh perspective, is vitally important.”

Trained as a painter, Schele fell in love with the Maya on a vacation to the Mexican ruins of Palenque. A two-hour tour turned into a 12-day stay and a lifelong calling. Though she was already a studio art professor at the University of South Alabama, Schele switched gears. She enrolled in UT’s top-ranked Latin American history graduate program and organized the first Maya Meetings at UT. The stage for UT’s continuing dominance of the field was set.

A Rising Star

Not long after their meeting at National Geographic, Schele invited young Stuart on a research trip to Palenque. “It was one the best times of my life,” he says. “That was when I got into the Maya in a serious way. I was always asking questions and bringing her ideas, and she took me seriously.”

At Schele’s urging, Stuart gave his first academic paper at age 12 (“I was terrified”), and at 15 was made lead epigrapher on a National Geographic expedition in Guatemala. Stuart made a major breakthrough on that trip: he deciphered a new syllable that had stumped dozens of researchers before him. When he was 18, he became the youngest winner in history of the MacArthur Fellowship, or “genius grant.”

Stuart spent two years between high school and college working full-time on the glyphs. “I was into this stuff in an intense way,” he says. “It took over my mind. I would come home from high school and want to work on Palenque inscriptions, not calculus.”

Then he made an even bigger breakthrough. Stuart figured out that the Maya could write the same word in different ways—sometimes using up to 15 different signs for the same sound. For years, codebreakers had been trying to match up signs and syllables one-to-one, but Stuart’s key insight was realizing that the Maya cared more about storytelling than simplicity. It was a defining moment.

Stuart was hailed as a genius, and he hated it. “I was made out to be this mega-nerd child prodigy, and I was never that,” he says. “People assume I’m ambitious because of the success I’ve had, but it’s the furthest thing from the truth. I do it because it’s really fun. There’s no other reason. Even at UT, I have moments where I look around and realize, oh, this is my ‘career.’ It’s still fun, so I’m still doing it.”

After a PhD at Vanderbilt, Stuart taught at Harvard for 11 years. Then UT made an offer he couldn’t refuse. Today, he is the Linda and David Schele Professor of Mesoamerican Art and Writing.

Linda Schele died of pancreatic cancer in 1998. Tenacious to the end, she team-taught two seminars the week of her death. Schele was buried near Lago Atitlán, Guatemala. A Maya priest performed a traditional ceremony.

Schele’s former husband, David Schele, thinks Linda would be impressed by how far Maya studies—and UT—have come. “For so long, Maya glyphs were just a code to decipher. Now they are a rich language to read,” he says. “She would be excited.”

Apocalypse Now?

Tortuguero, Mexico, is the least glamorous of archaeological sites. Its crumbling ruins are poorly preserved; in fact, a cement factory sits directly atop them. Nevertheless, one homely slab from Tortuguero is famous. It reads: “13 bak’tuns will end” on the date that, in our calendar, translates to Dec. 21, 2012.

Just those four words: 13 bak’tuns will end. “There is only one mention of 2012 anywhere in any Maya writing, and that’s it,” Stuart says.

Should we worry? “No,” says Stuart. “There is absolutely no doomsday prophecy. In fact, the Maya conception of time was huge, going far past 2012.”

A bak’tun is one of many units of time in one of many Maya calendars, the Long Count calendar. Each bak’tun is about 400 years long, and on Dec. 21, the 13th one will end. But that doesn’t mean the Maya prophesized the world would end—or that anything unusual would happen at all.

Stuart likens the date to an odometer resetting in an old car. Even if the odometer resets to 0, the driver still knows the car has gone thousands of miles. Similarly, on Dec. 21, one Maya unit of time will reset.

Perhaps the wildest part of that story is this: no one knows for sure where all the Armageddon theories originated—or how they caught fire. “Everybody loves a good apocalypse,” says Stuart. “There have always been doomsday theories and there probably always will be. But it was news to me that the Maya got pulled into it.”

Stuart was so puzzled by the doomsday chatter that he wrote an entire book on the subject, The Order of Days: The Maya World and the Truth About 2012. In that book, one possible source Stuart points to is a 1966 book by a leading Yale researcher, Michael Coe. Though Coe never suggested that the Maya believed the world would end in 2012, he did use the word “Armageddon” in a discussion of the 13th bak’tun—and some opportunistic types may have run with that.

“Mike was writing for a popular audience, and he just wanted to jazz things up a little,” Stuart says. “And 2012 was very far away.”

Our fascination with the Maya, Stuart believes, says more about our culture than theirs. Why are Americans so enthralled—is it escapism, exoticism, maybe a touch of racism? The mystery endures.

But let’s debunk another myth about the Maya: they didn’t disappear. Today, 6 million living Maya speak some 30 languages descended from the hieroglyphs. But few can read ancient Maya, and schools rarely teach indigenous history. Now scholars are teaming up with the Maya to help them recover their long-lost past. UT’s Casa Herrera hosts hieroglyph workshops taught by Maya, for Maya.

“We have their history, and that’s not right,” Stuart says. “We have to give it back to them. Elementary school textbooks in Guatemala and Mexico should teach Maya royal lineages.”

One participant in this year’s Maya Meetings was Maria del Carmen Pu Gomez, an environmental engineer at Universidad de San Carlos Guatemala. Gomez, who is Kiché Maya, also works for FEPMaya, a nonprofit that grants scholarships to indigenous students. “Right now, we’re finishing a workshop for Maya youth on ancient calendars and mathematics,” Gomez says. “I’m dedicated to transmitting ancestral knowledge—on Maya religion, food, medicine, clothing, everything.”

While the Maya reclaim their identity, researchers are taking the first steps in studying the glyphs as a rich body of literature rather than a mere code. “Some of these stories are like soap operas,” Stuart says, “with tales of revenge, of marriages and wars.” The next chapter in the Maya story is still being written. Today, 2012 is here, the code is cracked, and the world isn’t going to end, unless by a vast cosmic coincidence.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story stated erroneously that John Major Jenkins has sold more than 5 million books. In fact, that number is attributed to writer Graham Hancock.

Photos by Michael Stravato.

Photos from top: David Stuart at Casa Herrera in Antigua, Guatemala; a Maya ballcourt marker stone from Chinkultic, Mexico; street scene at Casa Herrera during the Maya Meetings; Stuart with Schele at Harvard’s Peabody Museum, 1980; at the ruins of Cobá, Mexico, 1975; tracing glyphs during the Maya Meetings; working in his Casa Herrera office.

[Watch videos of David Stuart in action.]


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