When you think of the Maya civilization what comes to mind? Perhaps you conjure images of an exotic people adorned with feathers and animal skins on the eve of battle. Or maybe you think of their achievements in architecture, mathematics, or astronomy. But did you know that amongst the most important achievements of the Maya civilization was their development of paper?
Writing developed in Mesoamerica by the 7th century BCE, and the earliest evidence for Maya hieroglyphic script is found on carved stone slabs known as stelae. It is unclear when exactly paper technology appeared in the region, but the earliest direct evidence of its existence dates back to at least the 1st century BCE. Mesoamerican paper—also known as bark paper or Amate—was called Juun by the Maya; a word that, to this day, is used to mean “book.” Bark paper was extensively produced and used for communication over large distances, record keeping, and ritual practice.
Some scholars argue that Mesoamerican bark paper was in many ways superior to its European and Asian counterparts, as well as easier to make, given that the raw materials needed for its production were abundant. It’s believed that Mesoamerican paper technology came about as a result of innovations in creating fabrics for clothes. That’s right, the Maya used the same inner bark from trees to make both paper and clothing!
The Maya were prolific writers and produced enormous volumes of books known as codices. However, in the 16th century, the Spanish Conquistadores tasked themselves with the destruction of every codex they could find and in the process nearly wiped out a literary tradition that spanned more than 2,000 years.
Few texts survived this purge. Although the two best known of these, the Popol Wuj and the Chilam Báalam, survive only as colonial-era transcriptions, their importance to our understanding of the Maya cannot be understated. The Popol Wuj is a book of the Kʼiché Maya which recounts the mythic tales of the Guatemalan highlands. The Chilam Báalam, a collection of texts discovered in Chumayel, Yucatán gives an account of several historical events and also informs much of our contemporary knowledge of Maya ritual life, culture, and folklore.
Although it is of course wonderful that these texts did manage to survive, it is difficult to even imagine the scope of what was lost. The good news is that advancements in technology such as machine learning are allowing researchers to decipher texts (especially on stone) which had previously been impossible to translate. This gives us a glimpse into the ancient Maya world view that was thought to be lost forever.
Editorial by Carlos Rosado.
I am a travel guide, blogger, and photographer passionate about archaeology, history, philosophy, and my home state of Yucatán.
Photography by Carlos Rosado for use in Yucatán Today.
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