Today there are fundamental changes in our view of ancient Maya civilization which stem from information which the Maya themselves have left us in virtually thousands of hieroglyphic inscriptions. It is the enormous progress in the decipherment of the Maya hieroglyphic script since 1979 which enables us to read, if as yet not everything, but sufficiently large portions of those texts in order to understand what these people were actually after. Maya script is 100% phonetic. The idiom expressed in this script is an early form of a language that belongs to the Ch’olan family of Maya languages with elements from an early form of Yucatec incorporated at times. Depending on the area of origin sometimes the Yucatecan elements play a more significant role in the respective hieroglyphic texts, but verb morphology quite clearly follows Ch’olan rather than Yucatecan lines. The problem faced in decipherment is the poor state of documentation of Ch’olan idioms. All we have, is a mere handful of word lists compiled by missionaries of the 16th and 17th centuries the orthography of which is sometimes quite defective.
Where we have a well-documented Maya idiom, like Yucatec and Tzotzil, the content of the vocabularies is selective. All dictionaries from colonial times reflect the one and only intention of their authors: to convert the natives to the catholic faith and teach and preach and control them by use of their own idiom. There are large and important sectors of the overall cultural heritage of the preconquest Maya that are simply missing from these dictionaries: all things dealing with the ancient cult are largely spared from the vocabularies, and the Maya calendar was part of their religion. Early scholars invented quite a number of those well-known Maya calendrical terms we use today.
Ethnogaphic information on the prehispanic Maya is poor. All we basically have is an abridged, rewritten, and rearranged copy of Fray Diego de Landa’s missionary handbook entitled “Relación de las Cosas de Yucatán” of 1566. The information contained in its 140 pages (Porrua-edition) constitutes but a fraction of what we know about the Aztecs from the 12 books of Fray Bernardino de Sahagun’s “Historia General de las Cosas de Nueva España”. Maybe it is for this reason that Maya scholars of the past and present have always been tempted to reconstruct, remodel and refurbish the ancient Maya acoording to their personal views, assumptions, and prejudices. Be that as it may. It is for this reason of insufficient ethnological, in particular linguistic information, that as yet not everything that the ancient Maya wrote can be read. At the present state of deciphering and reading Maya hieroglyphic texts, we are dealing with four distinct levels:
(1) There are those hieroglyphs which we can read phonetically and which express morphems and/or words with a known meaning,
(2) There are those hieroglyphs that we can read phonetically but the meaning of the morphems and/or words that they express remains unknown,
(3) There are those hieroglyphs which we cannot read but the meaning of which is rather well understood, and finally
(4) There are those hieroglyphs that we cannot read and the meaning of which is not known.
Enormous advance in Maya studies has also been made in archaeology. Large scale surveys and excavations at some of the larger Maya sites have disclosed a settlement pattern which is quite different from Morley’s and Thompson’s so called “Ceremonial Centers”. Sites like Copán, Tikal, Coba, and Dzibilchaltun, where such research was carried out, were proven to have been permanently inhabited real cities with formidable populations in the tens of thousands. Aerial photography, chemical soil analyses, pollen analyses and pollen counts have documented that intensive agriculture provided the basis of subsistence for such large centres.
Slash-and-burn techniques, as we know them today, could not possibly have supported such large settlements and the hundreds of other medium and small sized centers over so many centuries. Although these techniques are probably what remains of the Maya’s original agricultural practice. Maize was the principal cultigen but the Maya cultivated many other food plants besides maize, the most important ones being manioc, squash, and beans. Also, there are a variety of fruit trees, among them aguacate, chicozapote, and mamey. Only by cutting down the fruit trees in their old settlements could the Spanish authorities enforce the decision of the crown to concentrate and resettle the Maya of Yucatán in newly established missionary centers.