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How a Ukrainian-born linguist cracked the Maya code

Yuri Knorozov in the foreground of the Mayan pyramid of Chichen Itza (modern Mexico) and the Maya petroglyphs. Collage: Euromaidan Press
How a Ukrainian-born linguist cracked the Maya code
“What is created by one human mind can be unraveled by another,” said the young Ukrainian-born Soviet linguist Yuri Knorozov and cracked the Maya code, a task that was considered impossible by the leading scholars of the day.

Soviet propaganda touted his discovery as proof of the superiority of the Marxist-Leninist system — yet up until the 1990s, the same system banned Knorozov from traveling abroad to see the traces of the ancient civilization he helped decipher.

The Ukrainian land gave to the rest of the world many world-renown scientists and pioneers in technology. The most well-known include Ivan Puluj, who is believed to have discovered X-rays via his cathode lamp, Volodymyr Vernadsky, a prominent geochemist and founder of several geological disciplines, space-rocket inventor Serhiy Korolev, Kyiv-born American aircraft designer Igor Sikorsky, and Ukrainian-born American enabler of the computer revolution Lyubomyr Romankiw.

Iconic photo of Yuri Knorozov with his cat Aspid (or Asya for short).

No less fundamental of those was Yuri Knorozov, who became the first linguist to decipher the enigmatic Maya script — the writing system used by the pre-Columbian Maya civilization of Mesoamerica — in the early 1950s.

Yuri Knorozov was born on 19 November 1922 to a family of Russian and Armenian heritage in Pivdenne near Kharkiv. He himself believed that he was born on 31 August and the other date was a mistake in records.

At the time, the east-Ukrainian city of Kharkiv was the capital of the Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic, merged into the newly-formed Soviet Union in 1922, the year Knorozov was born.

At the age of five, playing cricket with his brothers, Knorozov received a severe blow to his head and even temporarily lost his sight. Later Knorozov sincerely believed in retrospect that the trauma had uncovered his abilities.

In 1937, Yuri Knorozov finished seven grades of a local school, and in 1939 graduated from a rabfak or “workers’ faculty” after two more years of schooling in preparation for entering the Kharkiv Medical Institute to become a psychiatrist.

In the highly militarized Soviet society of the time, medical faculties and institutes primarily trained military doctors so all the university entrants had to be eligible for military duty. And a military-medical commission declared Knorozov unfit for military service, which prevented him from becoming a doctor.

Universities, war, closed doors

In 1939, he entered the historical faculty of Kharkiv State University and finished two years by the time of the Nazi German invasion in the USSR. In the university, Knorozov had a special interest in shamanic practices and was fascinated with the ancient Egyptian language, had excellent grades in Latin, the basics of Marxism-Leninism, and military science.

Yuri Knorozov at work. Source

In September 1941, the Red Army drafted Knorozov for the construction of military fortifications in the Chernihiv region, though a month later, encircled by the advancing German forces, his detachment dissolved and Yuri made his way home.

He lived in German-occupied Pivdenne until 1943 when the Soviet troops first retook the town but then had to retreat. Knorozov and his mother fled with the troops to the Soviet-controlled territory and, finally, he found himself in Moscow, where he managed to continue his study at Moscow State University, specializing in Egyptology. Egyptian history was quite well-researched at the time, as the hieroglyphic script was deciphered over 100 years earlier.

Knorozov’s study was interrupted by a year-long military service in non-combatant military units. Finally, he returned to the university, changed his specialization to ethnography and graduated in 1948 with a thesis researching remnants of pre-Muslim beliefs in Middle Asia.

In 1946, Yuri Knorozov became interested in the possibility of deciphering the Maya script. Many scholars in the world didn’t believe that the Maya text would ever be read. In his later years, Knorozov recalled his reaction to such discouragement as,

“What is created by one human mind can be unraveled by another.”

Knorozov attempted to research the Maya writing as a post-graduate student. However, the fact that he had stayed in the German-occupied territory in 1941-1943 made him an “unreliable element” for the Soviet secret police, KGB, which disallowed him from entering aspirantura, the post-graduate course. Moreover, he was now travel-restricted, i.e. barred from leaving the Soviet Union.

Recommendations from his senior colleagues didn’t help him enter any post-graduate school in Moscow. However, they managed to pull some more strings and Knorozov ended up employed as a junior researcher in the Department of the Peoples of Central Asia in the Museum of Ethnography of the Peoples of the USSR in Leningrad (now Saint-Petersburg), where he worked to the end of his life.

Maya civilization

The Maya area within Mesoamerica (outlined in red), compared to all other Mesoamerica cultures (black) within Central America and southern North America (Mexico). Source: Lynn Foster, Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World, – New York, US: Oxford University Press, 2002. Via Wikimedia Commons

The lands of the Maya civilization comprised modern Guatemala and Belize, the southeast of Mexico, and the western portions of Honduras and El Salvador.

By 6000 BC, the early inhabitants of Mesoamerica started domesticating plants, which eventually led to the establishment of sedentary agricultural societies. The earliest known villages in the region date back to the period before 2000 BC. The first complex societies emerged in the Maya region throughout 2,000 BC-250 AD, which saw the cultivation of staple crops such as maize, beans, squashes, and chili peppers.

What we call the Maya civilization is mostly associated with the so-called Classic period of c. 250-900 when multiple city-states emerged and existed in the complex political environment with multiple alliances and enmities. The populations in the largest of the cities numbered up to 120,000 and those cities left behind a lot of architectural and monumental artifacts. For some reason which is still open to debate, many cities were abandoned by 900 BC and in subsequent centuries.

In the 16th century, Spain conquered the region which eventually led to the end of the Mayan civilization that already was in decline by that time. The indigenous populations were stripped of self-government, the Spanish language became the language of prestige in the area and Christianization led to the demise of traditional religions.

The final two pages of the Paris Codex, showing the Maya zodiac. Source: Bibliothèque Nacionale de France via Wikimedia Commons
The final two pages of the Paris Codex, showing the Maya zodiac. Source: Bibliothèque Nacionale de France via Wikimedia Commons

Similar to the ancient Egyptian language, which has Coptic as its living modern descendant, the classic Maya language has more than 30 modern descendants, some of which are endangered with only a few hundred to a few thousand speakers, while others are in a somewhat better situation. The most widespread modern Maya language is Quiché in Guatemala with more than one million native speakers.

However, most of the books written in the classic Maya language were destroyed and only a handful of them survived to this day, and the writing tradition was eventually lost in the 16-17th century.

How to decipher an unknown script

The Egyptian hieroglyphs were well-known visually but still incomprehensible in the early 19th century. Jean-François Champollion was able to crack the Egyptian hieroglyphic writing in 1822 using the famous Rosetta Stone — a parallel bilingual text in two Egyptian scripts and Greek dated 196 BC. He started with deciphering the ruler names known to be present in the text by its available Greek translation and then progressing to the full break up of the inscription.

A page from de Landa’s work “The relationship of the things of the Yucatan” in which he describes what he knew about the Maya alphabet.

More than a hundred years later, Yuri Knorozov didn’t have such a luxury as the Rosetta Stone to make sense of the Maya script. However, there was something for a good start: Catholic bishop Diego de Landa of the 16th century burned countless Maya manuscripts amid his campaign to convert the Maya to Christianity. He authored a work in which he cataloged what he knew about the Maya culture, religion, language, and writing.

In the 19th century, an abridged version of de Landa’s manuscript was rediscovered and published. In his work, de Landa asserted to have transliterated Maya hieroglyphs into the Spanish alphabet based on the input from literate Maya people.

However, not only did his “alphabet” fail to cover multiple Maya glyphs (or characters) known by surviving inscriptions, but it also included multiple variations for some letters. What is more, some of de Landa’s letters weren’t even known by any other sources.

Given this, all previous attempts to use the “de Landa alphabet” as a key for deciphering the Maya writing system proved to be unsuccessful. By the time of Knorozov’s research, linguists decoded only the Maya numbers and small fragments of texts related to astronomy and the calendar, yet the entirety of the script remained undiscovered.

Six sheets with depictions of eclipses, multiplication tables, and the flood, of the oldest surviving book written in the Americas, dating to the 13th/14th century, a Mayan book known as the Dresden Codex named after the German city where it was rediscovered. Source: WIkimedia Commons

In his research, Knorozov used what he called the method of positional statistics and cross-readings.

First, he concluded that the Maya script should have been syllabic in nature. He based his initial hypothesis, to put it simply, on the fact that:

  • alphabetic scripts with a separate letter for each sound such as Latin or Cyrillic alphabets comprise dozens of characters;
  • syllabic writing systems such as various Indian scripts with characters for each syllable have up to several hundreds of characters;
  • finally, the logographic systems, in which a separate character exists for most of the basic words and additional components may also bear grammatical characteristics, comprise thousands of characters.
Knorozov’s next step was cataloging the Maya characters from the sources accessible to him, and he discovered that the list contained some 350 unique characters, which was in the same ballpark as other known syllabic scripts.

Nowadays, more than 800 Mayan characters are known, including some purely hieroglyphic and other phonetic signs representing syllables.

Maya script on a panel from Cancuén, an archaeological site, located in the present-day Guatemalan Department of Petén. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Further, he started searching for persistent character groups that conveyed the roots of words, and then regular variable groups that would correspond to grammatical markers such as particles and affixes.

The modern Maya family languages are diverse and spread across a large territory, so Knorozov had to choose which of them could be the closest to Classic Maya texts, hidden behind the unknown script. The researcher hypothesized that the sources he was using — the de Landa manuscript and the Mayan codices — originated in the same area. Namely, it was the Yukatan peninsula where hundreds of thousands of people speak the Yucatec Maya language to this day.

Copy of the Book of Chilam Balam of Ixil in the National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico. Chilam Balam was written in the Yucatec Maya language using the Latin alphabet, it contains texts of various authors of the 17th and 18th centuries. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Luckily, dictionaries and literature written in Yukatec in the Latin script in the 16th-19th centuries had survived. Those became helpful for Knorozov in his deciphering endeavor.

Yuri Knorozov managed to break all the available combinations of the hieroglyphic characters into groups that included the same persistent character groups with different variables. Then he grouped the roots with the same grammatical markers. In this way, he was able to calculate frequencies of characters in certain positions and analyzed the word order in sentences. The Latin-script texts saw the same breakdown.

And only after such an application of his positional statistics method to the texts in both scripts, Knorozov was ready to start the restoration of the phonetics for ancient Maya writing, i.e. the way how to read the characters. Now, he used the “cross-readings method,” which basically was finding the same character in the various positions of different words as it would sound there in the same way.

Asking the native Maya scribes in the 16th century to write down particular Latin letters in Mayan, de Landa assumed that the Maya writing was based on an alphabet of some kind, however, what he got were not letters, but the hieroglyphs to record the syllabic names of the Latin letters he pronounced.

Now, Knorozov was able to correctly “cross-read” the same characters in the de Landa’s alphabet and in Maya manuscripts and further decipher how the other characters sounded by matching up the statistical values of their usage in the classic texts with the corresponding values he obtained from the analysis of the Latin-script texts.

Ironically, the “Maya alphabet” compiled by bishop Diego de Landa who did his best to destroy Maya written artifacts became the Rosetta stone in deciphering the Maya language.

A long path to recognition

Knorozov’s discovery was a breakthrough. At the time, Maya studies were at a dead end. English archeologist J. Eric Thompson, the greatest authority of the day, had rejected de Landa’s alphabetic approach. He arrived at the conclusion that the Mayan hieroglyphs represented abstract ideas and symbols, not words or letters. This idea prevailed among scholars of the mid-20th century, hampering fresh attempts to crack the enigmatic Mayan code.

Amid this background, Knorozov’s publication had an explosive effect. Western scholars, and especially Thompson, were hostile to his ideas. The world-renowned authority was shocked that a young, unknown researcher from an ideologically hostile country with no Mayan school of studies had so recklessly intruded on his field with a real revolution.

Additionally, Soviet mainstream and scientific media immediately seized Knorozov’s work for propaganda, claiming that it proves the superiority of the “Marxist-Leninist methodology.”

Amid the Cold War, this Soviet effort at Marxist propaganda fueled hostility to the Kharkiv-born scholar’s work. Thompson seized minor inaccuracies in Knorozov’s text. For instance, when Knorozov erroneously saw a jaguar in a stylized picture of a deer, Thompson jeered: “Well, maybe that’s a Marxist-Leninist jaguar but it’s not one of ours, it’s a deer.”

J. Eric Thompson rejected Knorozov’s finds till his death in 1975. Only after that were they fully picked up. Now he is renowned worldwide as the linguist who deciphered the Maya script.

“Exit ban”

Knorozov wrote his dissertation on the de Landa “alphabet” back in 1947, later he compiled a catalog of Mayan hieroglyphs and wrote several papers on the issue. In 1952, Knorozov published a paper that would later be accepted as a seminal work in the field, entitled “Ancient Writing of Central America.”

Still, he failed to enroll in post-graduate school several times as a person who during WWII had stayed in the German-occupied territory, which included the whole of Ukraine.

Only in 1954, a few years after he wrote his thesis, Knorozov’s research supervisors managed to find a loophole in the system for him to gain his academic degree. He was admitted to Moscow-based Ethnography Institute as soiskatel’ — an external post-graduate who wasn’t among the aspirantura students but still could take exams and defend his thesis.

Finally, he was set to defend his dissertation in March 1955. Some 30 years later Knorozov recalled that he

“went to the defense, not knowing how it would end, it was quite possible that with his arrest.”

The trouble was that in the USSR any scientific work, no matter the subject, in its introduction should heavily refer to the so-called “classics of Marxism-Leninism.” Those allegedly impeccable and always right classics were Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Vladimir Lenin. An author had to clear up their opinion on the matter in question and show that the research doesn’t come into conflict with the “classics.”

The monument to Knorozov in Mérida, Yucatán, Mexico, a “Gift from the Russian people to the Mayan people of Yucatán in México. 2018.” The plaque reads, “The great Russian scientist Yuri Knorozov, who deciphered the letter of the ancient Maya (1922-1999).” Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Meanwhile, on one hand, those figures of the allegedly unquestionable authority stated that using the hieroglyphic writing system, like that of the Maya, corresponds to the social development stage of a developed class state, on the other hand, Engels indicated that the Maya “reached the stage of barbarism.” That’s why Knorozov feared to be suspected of revising Marxism.

The dissertation commission, however, granted the degree of the Candidate of Sciences (roughly equal to Ph.D.) on him without a hitch. Moreover, they immediately voted for the second time and conferred him the higher degree of the Doctor of Sciences (a higher doctoral degree), taking into account not only his thesis but also his subsequent works.

Despite Knorozov’s success, he was still banned from leaving the Soviet Union and was denied a trip to Rome in 1955 to tell about his research at the 10th International Congress of Historians. The next year, however, the Soviet authorities allowed him to visit the 32nd International Congress of Americanists in Copenhagen, which became his only trip abroad until the last years of the Soviet Union.

Only 34 years later, Knorozov managed to travel abroad when he visited the land of Maya – Guatemala only a year before the collapse of the USSR, in late 1990. Later, starting from 1992, he visited Mexico on three occasions.

Because he could not leave the Soviet Union, Knorozov was isolated from western colleagues. The loneliness did not aid his scientific research: deprived of the opportunity to discuss his ideas professionally, Knorozov offered many erroneous readings of hieroglyphs. Because of this, his first works are often better than later ones.

Yuri Knorozov died on 30 March 1999 in Saint-Petersburg, Russia.

Dozens of researchers around the world, including Ukrainian ones, continue developing Knorozov’s methods of deciphering the ancient Maya manuscripts. His name is well-known in Mesoamerica: during his life, the researcher received high state awards of Mexico and Guatemala.

Despite the fact that Russia poses Knorozov as a Russian scientist, in 2016 amid the decommunization efforts in Ukraine, the Kharkiv City Council renamed after Knorozov one of the city streets that earlier bore a name of some Soviet communist hero. And in 2022, Ukraine is going to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of Yuri Knorozov nationally.

This publication is part of the Ukraine Explained series, which is aimed at telling the truth about Ukraine’s successes to the world. It is produced with the support of the National Democratic Institute in cooperation with the Ukrainian Crisis Media Center, Internews, StopFake, and Content is produced independently of the NDI and may or may not reflect the position of the Institute. Learn more about the project here.

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