'Lost' sacred language of the Maya is rediscovered

By David Keys Archaeology Correspondent
07 December 2003


Linguists have discovered a still-surviving version of the sacred religious language of the ancient Maya - the great pyramid-building civilisation that once dominated Central America.

For years some Maya hieroglyphic texts have defied interpretation - but now archaeologists and linguists have identified a little-known native Indian language as the descendant of the elite tongue spoken by rulers and religious leaders of the ancient Maya.

The language, Ch'orti - spoken today by just a few thousand Guatemalan Indians - will become a living "Rosetta Stone", a key to unravelling those aspects of Maya hieroglyphic writings which have so far not been properly understood. Over the next few years dozens of linguists and anthropologists are expected to start "mining" Ch'orti language and culture for words and expressions relating to everything from blood-letting to fasting.

The Maya were one of the great civilisations of the ancient world - a civilisation that lasted for 2,000 years, roughly from 550BC to AD1450. Theyconstructed huge cities - some covering 100 square miles with populations of up to 170,000. Their art, architecture and culture were extremely sophisticated - and their elites studied astronomy and mathematics. Their writing system was a complex script - systemically similar to Chinese. And yet they remained technically a "stone age" society with no metal tools, no draught animals and no wheeled transport.

Up till now, scholars had thought that, in spoken form, the ancient Maya elite sacred language was extinct.

But research by a team led by archaeologist Professor Steven Houston and linguist Professor John Robertson of Brigham Young University, Utah, has now shown that Ch'orti evolved directly out of that sacred language.

The language that Ch'orti is descended from seems to have originally been spoken through an area of what are now Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and southern Mexico. Archaeological research has shown that as the civilisation progressed and spread, other Central American Maya languages came to be spoken. But because of its association with the first Maya civilisation, successive generations of Maya elites preserved proto-Ch'orti as a sacred language.







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