Eurocentrism within Epigraphy- Notes on Coe’s “Breaking the Maya Code”

According to Michael Coe in his book titled, “Breaking the Maya Code” several obstacles arise for scholars endeavoring to understand and decipher the meanings in non-alphabetic scripts across world history. The study of this form of analysis in trying to understand Mayan symbols is the focus of the book.

Early in the text Coe describes the difficulty in studying non-alphabetic symbols noting how long it has taken for the history of decipherment to clear away ingrained perceptions that have hindered scholarly discovery. Much of the stale views causing the inability for studies within the history of decipherment to flourish involved a “measured” cultural interpretations of society. Such beliefs held world societies as hierarchical with certain civilizations being superior to others. Coe discusses a few of the Eurocentristic foundational progenitors, some witting (Gelb, Morgan) others unwitting (Darwin). The ideas that resulted from these views granted civility/barbarity along a continuum that was correlative to a society’s system of writing. For example, Coe points out:

“…The New York Times insisted that the native peoples of the New World, whether Hopi, Aztec, or Inca, spoke only dialects. Presumably the editors felt that American Indians were incapable of communicating in languages as mature as those of Europe.”

In this one can observe that the accepted beliefs of certain civilizations’ purportedly  “limited” contribution in terms of language complexity in spoken form created a foundation for impenetrable skepticism or nonbelief of certain civilization’s capability of language construction. This skepticism is particularly problematic when viewed by how historian and Assyriologist Ignace Gelb understood Chinese script. Coe informs:

“It appears to have been inconceivable to [Gelb] that  non-white people could ever have invented on their own any kind of script with phonetic intent. On one side, he refused to allow the Chinese the invention of their own writing, claiming on totally non-existent grounds that it was derived from his beloved Near East…[1] ”

Coe finishes that section by explaining how the Maya were seen as being “suspended from the lowest branches of the evolutionary tree.”[2]


[1] Michael Coe, Breaking the Maya Code, Coe, Michael D. 2012. Breaking the Maya code. New York: Thames & Hudson, Kindle edition, loc 146-397

[2] Ibid, loc 397

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