Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Maya Cosmic Prophecy 2012: From Sensation to Sensibility

Maya Scholars in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador and North America have been watching with amusement and dismay as self-styled experts proclaim that ancient Maya prophets foretold an earth-shattering happening to occur December 21, 2012. This predicted phenomenon gets described in contradictory but always cataclysmic fashion--as an ecological collapse, a sunspot storm, a rare cosmic conjunction of the earth, sun, and the galactic center, a new and awesome stage of our evolution, and even a sudden reversal of the Earth's magnetic field which will erase all our computer drives. One even predicts the earth's initiation into a Galactic Federation, whose elders have been accelerating our evolution with a "galactic beam" for the last 5000 years. In sum, the world as we know it will suddenly come to a screeching halt.

These predictions are alleged to be prophecies by so-called "Ancient Mayans" whose "astronomically precise" calendar supposedly terminates on that date. According to such accounts, these mysterious Maya geniuses appeared suddenly, built an extraordinary civilization, designed in it clues for us, and then suddenly, inexplicably, vanished, as if they had completed their terrestrial mission. These same experts claim special credibility for the Maya prophecies by asserting that these historic sages, with their possible extraterrestrial origins, had tapped into an astonishing esoteric wisdom.

Could any of this be true? Is this a cosmic, or comic, prophecy?

Mark Van Stone, a REAL anthropologist and Mayanist, writes of the REAL meaning of December, 21, 2012, according to the Maya calendar:

This is a slide show, so don't be daunted by the number of pages. There is a lot of background info on the Maya calendar.

Friday, October 10, 2008

To think this today (Peten jungle, Guatemala)...

...used to be this (El Mirador, Guatemala)...

...which looks a lot like this (Cahokia, Illinois)...

As part of my course on Classic Maya Civilization, we are actually learning about some pre-Classic Maya cities that have only recently come to light in the Peten lowlands of Guatemala. Perhaps the first large Maya city was located here, now called El Mirador. The middle picture above is an artist's conception of the ancient city based on current archaeological evidence. It is thought that perhaps up to 100,000 people may have lived here in the Maya city. The city was built of limestone and its monumental structures were painted red and white. Keep in mind the ruins of this once breathtaking Maya city date to ca. 300 BC, well before the Classic Maya civilization of great kings and monuments that we've known about for some time. That means that, indeed, Maya civilization dates back far earlier than we once thought, and their civilization achieved monumental grandeur much earlier than previously thought.

What's even more intriguing, although this comparison is still considered outside the mainstream perspective of most current anthropologists, is that large earthen monumental structures similar to the those of the Olmec and the stone structures of the Maya were present in North America's Mississippi Valley dating back to nearly 4,000 BC (Watson Brake, Louisiana).

This begs the question: Did the ancestors of the later Olmec and Maya civilizations live in the Mississippi Valley before migrating south into Mesoamerica (Mexico and Central America)? Anthropologists have long tried to imply Mesoamerican influence upon the Mississippi Valley and Southeastern U.S., but it seems, more and more, we are being presented with evidence to the contrary: the Mississippi Valley may have influenced Mesoamerica.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008


Just to update what I've been up to:

Ajtz'ib Maya (Maya scribe)

I finished my Wikipedia project for the Classic Maya Civilization class. My project was writing a brief grammatical sketch of Q'anjob'al, a modern Maya language spoken in the Guatemala highlands. For those of you who are interested, here is the direct link:'anjob'al_language

(It is also posted on the right side bar with the other Wikipedia articles I've written or had a hand in writing or editing.) There are still a few things I might add, but I think it is a good start for now, especially since almost nothing has been published in English on this language (a few books have been published in Spanish).

I am doing the final edits for my article to appear in the Journal of Folklore Research. I understand it will be published in the final edition of this year, probably around the end of October. This is the article I've written on two Rumsen Ohlone folktales that have never before been published in the original Rumsen language, along with the English translation. I hope this will encourage Rumsens to start a language revitalization project and perhaps teach these two stories to their children.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Breaking the Maya Code

For those of you, who, like me, are interested in the Mayan hieroglyphs and the stories they tell about the ancient Maya civilization, a 2-hour documentary is slated to be available DVD on September 16, 2008. Apparently a brief 50-minute version of this was aired back in April on NOVA, which I unfortunately missed. The film is based on Michael Coe's book, Breaking the Maya Code, which I have read, documenting the history of how the ancient Mayan hieroglyphs were deciphered.

It was long thought that the Mayan glyphs were a form of picture-writing, perhaps similar to what the Mexica, or Aztecs, used. However, a Russian scholar, Yuri Knorosov, living in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in the USSR in the 1950s, who had never even visited the Maya ruins and worked only from pictures and paper copies, had discovered that the Mayan glyphs, like those of ancient Egypt and Sumeria, were partly phonetic, giving clues to their pronunciation and correct decipherment.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Nude tengereg nga shage yi

The Fall semester has begun and I don’t know where summer went. I am currently enrolled in three courses: Cultural Anthropology, Ancient Maya Civilization, and Discourse Analysis.

As you may have noticed from the last several posts with photos, I did take a two-week break to go on my research trip to the Northeast (Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Maine). I was also working on an article on Rumsen Ohlone folklore that is about to be published in the Journal of Folklore Research. It has gone through the peer-review process and is now in the final editing stage.

I spent much of the summer working on my Graduate Research Assistanceship (GRA) project with the Southwest Monguor language of central China. This is, at its base, a Mongolic language (‘Monguor’ derives from Mongol), with an admixture of Tibetan (primarily through the practice of Buddhism) and a northern dialect of Chinese.

The title of this post is in SW Monguor and means “Today the weather is very good.” Any of you who’ve seen the movie Mongol might recognize the Monguor word for ‘sky’ or ‘weather', tengereg, as being related to the name of the Mongolian sky god Tengri often mentioned in that film.

Here are a few more examples of the language:

be lhoma yi.
1S student COP.dir
‘I am a student.’

be hengen de yi.
1S teacher also COP.dir
‘I am also a teacher.’

qe rjacoh gaje mede u?
2S Chinese.Mongolian(Monguor) language know PRT.inter
‘Do you know the Monguor language?’

njang-ne aabe hale yi?
3S-GEN father where COP.dir
‘Where is his father?’

You might note from the above that Monguor is very much a 'mixed' language, since, for example, lhoma 'student' is actually Tibetan, while tengereg (< tenger), nude (< önöödör), mede (< medekh) are Mongolian in origin.

Quite an interesting tongue!

A note on pronunciation: e is pronounced like an English schwa or uh sound and lh is a lateral fricative.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Gorgeous Maine

I have a rather crappy digital camera, so my pics, as you may have noticed, are not too great. But I took some pics of rural Maine yesterday as I did a little tour about an hour's drive northeast of Portland up to Georgetown. The title of this post says it all: Maine is beautiful! Most of Maine is very rural, looking much like the following pics.

I definitely would like to come back and spend more time in Maine.

I am now back in Boston.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Kudos to US ambassador for singing in indigenous language

I was pleased to hear that a Native South American language, Guarani, and a US ambassador recently made headlines:

The US ambassador to Paraguay has become a music sensation in the country after recording an album of folk songs in the indigenous Guarani language. "What I've been trying to do is show respect for Paraguay and for its culture," James Cason told the BBC. Proceeds from the album sales are going to fund English-language grants for poor Paraguayan students. Mr. Cason's efforts have been well received, although one politician grumbled about his pronunciation. Mr. Cason's songs have been playing on the radio and listeners have been enthusiastic, he says. "I think they're just amazed and delighted that someone would take the time to learn a language which is probably harder than Chinese," said Mr. Cason, who leaves Paraguay, his final posting, on 2 August.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Tômwihtawush uyôtowawôk.
Save the language. (Mohiks - Mohegan)

As usual these days, it has been a while since my last entry. So far it’s been a busy summer as a research assistant working with data on the Southwest Monguor language of Tongren, China, a Mongolic language with which I had no prior familiarity. The language has a Mongolic base with infusions of Tibetan (primarily through the practice of Buddhism) and Chinese (the dominant nationality and culture).

As for my own research, in a few weeks I will be making a trip to Boston from where I will drive down to southeastern Connecticut to the Mohegan (Mohican) reservation, home of the popular Mohegan Sun Casino. I will be spending a few days with the tribal linguist to gather data on the Mohegan language (Eastern Algonquian), which has been “sleeping” since 1908. They have a language revitalization program in place (click here to learn more), and classes are being taught. I will be working on Mohegan for my PhD dissertation, and thus indirectly assisting in the efforts of their language revitalization program. On this trip, I will also be driving up to Portland, Maine to meet the only living speaker of Penobscot, another “sleeping” Eastern Algonquian language. I hope to gain some insight from Penobscot data to assist in the Mohegan revitalization efforts. Needless to say, the idea of assisting in the Mohegan Nation's language revitalization efforts is exciting!

I also recently attended the Siouan and Caddoan Linguistics Conference (SCLC) in Joplin, Missouri. It was a good opportunity to spend time with fellow Siouanists and meet some Native Americans of the Omaha, Ioway-Otoe, Osage, and Hochunk (Winnebago) nations, all involved in their own language revitalization efforts in various stages of progress. Despite my upcoming new adventures in Eastern Algonquian, I still continue my efforts in preparing a revised Biloxi (Siouan) dictionary and ethnography. I also recently submitted an article of a translated Rumsen Ohlone (Penutian) text to the Journal of Folklore Research, which is still under review and which I hope will get published.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Ancient Skull Deformation Practices

Ancient elongated skull from Paracas, Peru

For whatever reason, some ancient peoples, including some ancient Native Americans, practiced various types of intentional skull deformation. This would be performed soon after birth, while an infant’s head was still malleable. “A mother strapped her baby into a cradleboard and then bound another board across the child’s forehead until the forehead was flattened, the sides swelled outward, and the eyes developed a bulging look to them” (La Vere 2007: 60). It appears these practices took place all over ancient Native America, from the Mississippi Valley to Mesoamerica (Mexico and Central America) to Peru. (Biloxis were said to have practiced skull deformation to some degree, although to what degree is currently unknown.) “Flat-heading” seems to have been a favorite practice among many ancient Mississippian cultures, although, according to La Vere, Spiro (an ancient Mississippian mound center located in modern Oklahoma) appeared to favor head elongation. Elongation appears to have been practiced by some among the ancient Maya and by many ancient residents of Paracas, Peru. Whether this practice correlated with elite or priestly status, or to identify members of particular clans or allegiances, or simply as a symbol of beauty, is unknown. The practice also seems to have been performed to a certain degree among ancient Egyptians.


La Vere, David. 2007. Looting Spiro mounds: an American King Tut's tomb. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Linguistic Archaeology?

This is one of those entries where comments would really be appreciated, since this has been a major part of my research of late, and it would be nice to have feedback as to whether this all makes sense or not:

As many of you know, I have been working on the Biloxi language and trying to piece together some history based on linguistic evidence. While there is no known written history of the Biloxi nation before the European invasion, I believe there are clues to ancient Biloxi culture and society buried within the remains of its vocabulary.

It is currently my contention that Biloxi settlements, like many others of the Southeast, likely contained great earthen mound structures, some in the shape of large flat-topped pyramids and others smaller, rectangular or circular. These large pyramidal structures rose like mountains of monumental grandeur above the surrounding forests, rivers, and streams. While, to my knowledge, there are as yet no actual archaeological remains traceable to ancient Biloxi society, I invoke linguistic evidence to postulate the former existence of such structures.

The word for ‘stairway’ in Biloxi is asis(i)tu, which, broken into its component parts, is a- ‘place of’, si ‘step,’ reduplicated to represent plurality, and –tu, another plural marker that, together with reduplicated si, emphasizes a great number of steps or stairs, suggesting perhaps a long stairway such as those ascending the sides of large pyramids and mound structures (think of those in Cahokia or Mayan ruins). Upon the flattened summits of these structures would probably have perched a cabin with a grass roof, usually the residence of a high-ranking noble or elite. The tallest of these pyramids bespoke the superior status of its lofty occupant, called, in Biloxi, Yaaxitąąyą, ‘The Great Sacred One.’1 Adjacent to the largest pyramidal structures was at least one large open space, or plaza, in which the masses would congregate for an optimal viewing of the great king’s speeches or other ceremonies and rituals. (Biloxi narratives also refer to the king being elevated perhaps on a mound, platform, or chair above the masses.)

Biloxi vocabulary suggests a certain amount of societal stratification consistent with a predominantly agricultural economy. An agrarian economy usually leads to the creation of a class of elites and nobles, and this was quite apparent among Southeast Amerindian nations, many of which were of the "Mississippian Moundbuilder" cultures. Biloxi vocabulary indicates a certain amount of power-sharing by other ąyaaxi, or lesser nobles, and ixi 2, their deputies and assistants. Biloxi nobility likely legitimized their superior “sacred” status through the practice of what has been called shamanism 3. Their connection to the supernatural realm would have legitimized their decision-making by the process of communing with sacred spirits or ancestors. Such communing with the Otherworld as a means of justifying their actions would have been a powerful tool for keeping law and order. After all, shamans could shapeshift into were-animals, and the possible penalty for stepping out of line could be death by a noble ripping one to shreds in the form of a were-wolf or were-eagle or other type of powerful transformed being (at least that’s how it would be perceived by the masses, the belief probably being instilled in the citizenry from childhood). Such connections to the Otherworld would also serve to maintain an element of mystery around the activities and behaviors of those in the highest offices, thereby legitimizing their power by their special sacred knowledge and connections to spiritual realms that could either help, or injure, an individual or an entire community. ('Shaman-king' rulership shares probable parallels with the ancient Olmec and Mayan civilizations. Cultural similarities and possible influence and trade between the ancient Southeast and Mesoamerican [Olmec, Maya, Aztec] civilizations is still being debated.)


1. Literally, (ą)yaa + xi + tąą + = person-sacred-big-DEF
2. Literally, i + xi = commitative (with)-sacred (one) = 'one who works with the sacred one(s)' (deputy)
3. As I've stated before, "shamanism" and "shaman" are terms that spawn hot debate among anthropologists, because these terms originated with the Tungus of Siberia, who do not share many of the traits found in Native American spiritual practices, especially those involving priest-kingship or shaman-kingship. (We should also not rule out the possibility of females holding the reigns of shamanic power. The ruler of Cofitachequi, believed to have been a Muskogean settlement in what is now Georgia, was a woman (queen) carried on a litter upon the shoulders of her male subordinates. This was documented by de Soto.)

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Pidgins and Creoles

I just finished reading a book titled Bastard Tongues by Derek Bickerton. In it, he explores the origin of pidgin and Creole languages around the world, specifically in Africa, the Indian Ocean, the Caribbean, and Hawai’i. His theory, not unlike what Chomsky postulates, is that children are born with a “bioprogram” that allows them to create Creoles out of pidgin tongues, filling in missing aspects of grammar by similar methods used worldwide regardless of the substrate language or languages influencing the pidgin. He states, for instance, that most Creole languages have subject-verb-object (SVO) word order, like English.

Bickerton unfortunately does not, however, take into consideration Native North American so-called pidgins, such as those that have been traditionally called Mobilian (Trade) Jargon or Choctaw-Chickasaw Trade Jargon (once spoken in the Southeast and Mississippi Valley) and Chinook Jargon (once spoken in the Northwest). Mobilian in fact has an OsV word order (small ‘s’ indicating that the subject is optional and often not employed). Thus:

ete (eno) cãle.
wood (1S) cut
I cut the wood.

While many linguists and others have postulated that, what I now like to refer to as the Mobilian International Language (MIL)1, came about only after European contact, I agree with Drechsel (1997) who postulates that this “pidgin” language shows far more ancient origins. For one thing, the OsV word order is unknown to any of the modern languages of the Southeast, including Choctaw and Chickasaw (SOV), from which MIL is supposed to have arisen, and it certainly does not display the SVO word order that is common to all the European contact languages (Spanish, French, English). This OsV word order is, however, the word order of Proto-Muskogean. There is also the fact that, despite later contact with Spanish, French, and English, few words from these European languages entered MIL's vocabulary. Thus, I believe these facts point to MIL's roots going back long before European contact and probably having been used by various southeastern and Mississippian nations as a common trade language for centuries, along with Native American sign language.

While most pidgins and Creoles have come about through contact of indigenous languages with European colonial languages, I think it’s important to realize that not all of them have. In fact, Bickerton himself talks about Pidgin Hawaiian, not Pidgin English, having been in use in Hawai’i well before Pidgin English came about. This was because Hawai’i was already a long established progressive monarchy when Europeans and others first began arriving, and, well, if these immigrants wanted to communicate with Hawaiians, they needed to learn to communicate in Hawaiian the best they could. (Hawaiians, being in the dominant position at the time, were not about to learn English, Portuguese, Tagalog, or Japanese to communicate with these newcomers.) The result of this, before the American overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893, was Pidgin Hawaiian, which looked something like this:

(Bickerton 2008: 211)
Wau no ku’ai kela kapiki. (Pidgin Hawaiian)
I NEG buy that cabbage.
A’ole au e ku’ai aku i kela kapiki. (Bickerton)2
’A’ole au e kū’ai aku i kēlā kāpiki. (Hawaiian)
NEG 1S sell that cabbage.
I won’t sell the cabbage.

Note that the positive sentence pattern in Hawaiian would be: Kū’ai aku au i kēlā kāpiki, "sell 1S that cabbage," which is VSO. (Negative sentence structure in Hawaiian mandates changing its usual VSO word order.) But note that the Pidgin form is SVO, in line with Bickerton’s contention.


1. I find this a far better name than Mobilian (Trade) Jargon, for it expresses what Mobilian actually was, an "international" language used among many southeastern Nations, including the Biloxis, as a mode of communication for trade, joint ceremonial rituals, and politics in the context of intertribal regional alliances. It is important to note that, while most pidgins have negative connotations and are not highly regarded, the opposite was true of MIL. Southeastern nations had no negative attitude about using the pidgin, and, in fact, it is believed they often used the language among themselves in order to confuse or hinder communication with encroaching Europeans, who often thought MIL was actually Choctaw, Chickasaw, or some other language.

2. Why Bickerton or his editors did not employ the crucial macrons of Hawaiian orthography is a mystery to me, especially since he has lived and taught in Hawai'i and is writing about Hawaiian pidgin languages. Thus, I have included the macrons as they should appear underneath the macronless transcription appearing in his book.


Bickerton, Derek. 2008. Bastard tongues: a trailblazing linguist finds clues to our common humanity in the world's lowliest languages. New York: Hill and Wang.

Drechsel, Emanuel. 1997. Mobilian Jargon: linguistic and sociohistorical aspects of a Native American pidgin. Oxford: Clarendon Press.