Ancient Mayan humour unlocked

Russian scientists explore Maya humor. Source: Ingimage / Vostock-photo

Russian scientists explore Maya humor. Source: Ingimage / Vostock-photo

Researchers from Russia have brought a fresh perspective to understanding of the ancient Mayan civilization. Among their recent discoveries are humorous myths preserved in stone carvings. Their work has also shed light on aspects of Mayan stargazing that contradict recent sensational claims by a Canadian student.

Russian researchers have found fragments of ancient Mayan anecdotal myths; a kind of humorous interpretation of their religious events; which challenges previously held notions. 

The ancient Mayans immortalized myths in stone, bone and wood, claim researchers from the Knorozov Mesoamerican Centre at the Russian State Humanitarian University in Moscow. Earlier, it was thought that Mayan inscriptions were decreed by powerful rulers to memorialize political and military events.

"We discovered that mythology often served to amuse the reader," said Dmitry Belyayev, an associate professor at the Knorozov Mesoamerican Centre. "For example, one of the most popular and well-known texts depicts scenes from the life of the moon goddess and one of the old gods, when he was robbed by a rabbit who stole his clothes and belongings. The text is only a fragment, and we read how the rabbit uses obscene language to insult the god. The same characters are present in the official calendar and cosmological mythology, but it is different there."

The researchers are now trying to fully reconstruct these myths and compare them with Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Greek myths. 

Newcomers

Russian research of the ancient Mayan civilization began in 2010, with public funding. One area of study is happening on-site at Mexico and Guatemala, focusing on the Mayan epigraphic atlas, and documenting inscriptions. The humorous myths were found here.

A second project is a re-release of the comprehensive edition of Mayan manuscripts. Also, scholars are creating a virtual "Maya World," a 3D online museum of genuine historical objects.

The Russian teams have around 20 professionals, along with students doing field work. The centres are co-financed by local governments, who appreciate the Russian researchers because they are well versed in Mayan history and philology. (Soviet scientist Yuri Knorozov deciphered the complex Mayan writing system in the 1950s and 60s). European and North American researchers focus primarily on ethnography and anthropology.

"We are working at famous sites such as Tikal in Guatemala," Belyayev said. "This is one of the largest Mayan cities of the 1st millennium BC, included in the UNESCO World Heritage List. This year we began to collaborate with the Quirigua archaeological park, which is the second main Maya site in Guatemala, also listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site."

Mayan cities and the stars

Canadian student William Gadoury said early in May that he had found a lost Mayan city with the use of satellite images. He proposed that the Mayans decided city locations inspired by the form of constellations in outer space. While Russian researchers believe this is possible, they caution that Gadoury's hypothesis can only be confirmed by expeditions. Google Maps cannot help in the final identification of historical sites.

"His method has a right to exist, but Gadoury drew his conclusions based on the Madrid Codex," said Belyayev, who added that the Codex does not contain information about the 23 Mayan constellations that Gadoury refers to.

The Madrid Codex is an ancient Mayan text kept in Spain, which contains 112 pages. It is a kind of manual for priests, indicating to which gods and on what day one needs to make sacrifices. It is based on the astronomical calendar, and contains the tables used by priests to predict the rise of planets in the sky.https://ssl.gstatic.com/ui/v1/icons/mail/images/cleardot.gif

The Codex is six metres long, and is folded in several places, but the beginning and the end are missing. Russian scholars point out that the Mayans did not have any star charts. It is therefore not possible to compare their star map with the real one, as Gadoury allegedly did. 

"We have Mayan depictions of constellations, and there are references to them in the texts," Belyayev said. "But the Mayans did not have star atlases at all."

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