LAKE ATITLAN, GUATEMALA — CHRISTOPHER JONES, research specialist at the University Museum of the University of Pennsylvania, is one of the world's leading Mayan epigraphers (inscription experts). During our tour, he consented to an interview. Some excerpts:
What made scholars believe at first that the Mayans were a peaceful, agrarian people?
Incomplete information. We were able to read only a little part of the hieroglyphics and that part always seemed to concern sacred periods of time. So, we got to thinking that the Mayans were a very aesthetic people. Since we couldn't read history on the monuments, we started to think that the people whose portraits were on the front were not rulers, but priests or gods.
What caused experts to change their minds and view Mayans as warlike?
It was the decipherment, for the most part. Also, new paintings discovered in such places as Bonampak [in Mexico], which depicted warfare and convinced us that they actually fought a lot.
Might Mayan scholars change their minds again?
There's one area in which we might start to find evidence that could make us change our minds - if we find that there were visits to the Mayans from China, India, Southeast Asia. The Asian people were perfectly capable of crossing the Pacific, and I would guess they did. You might find that certain similarities in the calendars, for example, are too close to be entirely coincidental. Things like that are very vague right now and cannot be proven, but they certainly merit more research.
Finally, why did Mayans have wheels on their toys, but not on their carts?
The simple answer is that they had no beasts of burden to pull the wheels.