Cultural Innovations in Maya Hieroglyphic Writing

Sunday, 15 February 2015
Exhibit Hall (San Jose Convention Center)
Jessica L. Munson, University of California, Davis (Department of Linguistics), Davis, CA
Writing is one of the most important inventions in human history. It not only enables communication at much larger social scales than speech or sign-language, but it also facilitates the spread of information among individuals separated in space and time. The ancient Maya script evolved over the course of about 1800 years in modern day Central America and southern Mexico. During this time, hundreds of distinctive graphical units (graphemes) were employed to form a fully functional writing system composed of a mixture of logographs (word signs) and syllabic phonetic signs as early as 250 BCE. Previous studies, relying on limited datasets, have shown that only a small subset of these graphemes was used at any given time, with bursts of innovation in certain epochs. Inscriptions compiled by the Maya Hieroglyphic Database Project provide the necessary comprehensive evidence to quantify patterns of variation and the historical development of this unique script. First, we present results of the new grapheme inventory, which captures the frequency and variation of sign usage during the Classic period (ca. 400-900 CE). We reconstruct grapheme innovation using dated texts from known archaeological sites, which make it possible to trace the diffusion of innovations with great precision. Next, we present a case study of the third person ergative pronoun u- to model some of the cultural forces that shaped this writing system. Selecting the most common set of signs for this study allows us to examine cultural diversity within the community of scribes that produced Classic Maya texts. Lastly, we quantify patterns of recorded rituals to evaluate cultural variation in Classic Maya dynastic traditions. Inscriptions found on an array of architectural features and portable objects provide evidence for a range of dynastic rituals tied to monument construction, feasting, sacrifice, deity impersonation as well as various priestly duties. Combined, these data capture the spatiotemporal signature of writing conventions, scribal practices, and documented ritual traditions in Classic Maya society. This poster summarizes the results of these three studies by illustrating the cultural and historical forces that shaped the evolution of this unique writing system.