The Mayan civilisation lasted from about 500 BC to 1200 AD, with a classical
period from 300-900 AD. The earliest known writing in the Mayan script
dates from about 250 BC, but the script is thought to have developed
at an earlier date. Recent archeological finds indicate that the Mayan
civilisation started much earlier: around 3,000 BC.
In about 1566, the first bishop of Yucatan, Diego de Landa, compiled
a key to the Mayan syllabary consisting of 27 Spanish letters and the
Mayan glyphs with similar sounds. This became known as the Landa Alphabet
and helped with the decipherment of the script, even though it was based
on the false premise that the script was alphabetic.
For a long time many scholars believed that the script did not represent
a language at all, or that it wasn't a complete writing system. The
first major breakthrough in decipherment came during the 1950s when
a Russian ethnologist, Yuri Valentinovich Knorosov, proposed that the
Mayan script was at least partly phonetic and represented the Yucatec
Mayan language. His ideas were not welcomed by other Mayanists, but
he was eventually proved correct.
Further progress in the decipherment was made during the 1970s and
1980s when more linguistics began to take an interest in the script.
Today most Mayan texts can be read, though there are still some unknown
A gripping account of the decipherment of the Mayan script can be found
in Breaking the Maya Code, by Micheal D. Coe.
The Yucatec Maya continued to use the Mayan script until at least the
16th century. Recently, their descendants have started to learn the
script once again from the scholars who have deciphered it.
The Mayan script is logosyllabic combining about 550 logograms (which
represent whole words) and 150 syllabograms (which represent syllables).
There were also about 100 glyphs representing place names and the
names of gods. About 300 glyphs were commonly used.
Examples of the script have been found carved in stone and written
on bark, wood, jade, ceramics, and a few manuscripts in Mexico, Guatemala
and northern Belize.
Many syllables can be represented by more than one glyph
The script was usually written in paired vertical columns reading
from left to right and top to bottom in a zigzag pattern.
The Mayan syllabary
Sample texts in some of the modern Mayan languages
Konojel ri winaqi' kan kalaxib'en pe ri kolotajïk, ri junan kiq'ij,
ri junan kejqalen, junan kich'ojib'al pa kik'aslen, xa achi'el k'a ri
kik'ojlen, ri kinojib'al kichajin xa tik'amun k'a chi nimaläj konojel
Chijunil li poyanam juntaq'eet wankil xloq'al naq nake'yo'la, ut
kama' ak reheb' naq wan xna'leb'eb ut nake'reek'a rib', tento naq
te'xk'am rib' sa' usilal chirib'ilrib'eb'.
Spetsanal ja swinkil ja lu'um k'inali junxta wax jul schonjel, sok ja
sijpanub'ali, ja yuj ojni b'ob' sk'u'luk ja jas sk'ana-i ja b'as lekilali,
ja yuj ja ay sk'ujoli sok ay spensari t'ilan oj yilsb'aje lek sok ja smoj
Tuláakal wíinik ku síijil jáalk'ab yetel keet
u tsiikul yetel Najmal Sijnalil, beytun xan na'ata'an sijnalil yetel no'oja'anil
u tuukulo', k'a'abet u bisikuba bey láaktzilil yetel tuláakal
Translation (of all the above texts)
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They
are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another
in a spirit of brotherhood. (Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)