The hardly-believable tale of how Mayan glyphs came to be deciphered begins in a surreal locale — fire-bombed Dresden, Germany, in the spring of 1945, just after the Red Army had taken control of the city of smoking rubble. A sharp-eyed Russian major poking through the ruins of the state library spotted the Dresden Codex, and fortunately recognized its value.
This plucky manuscript, one of only four Mayan books in the entire world, having escaped both the Spanish Inquisition and the holocaust of World War II four hundred years later, turned out to be indispensable to code breakers trying to interpret Maya inscriptions on the stone stelae the Spaniard conquistadores couldn’t burn.
Only weeks later, in May, 1945, in the final great Battle of Berlin to end World War II in Europe, eighteen-year old Yuri Knorosov’s Red Army unit was ranging through the burning streets of the German capital when they came upon the National Library. In securing the building Knorosov helped himself to one copy of one book as a souvenir of war — in a quirk of extreme coincidence, it was a copy of yet another Mayan codex.
The most stunning kismet in all of this however, is who Knorosov turned out to be: the single genius most responsible for breaking the Mayan code and deciphering the otherwise voiceless legacy of a culture which can no longer speak for itself.
This true version of events should have been more than enough, but throughout Knorosov’s career the urban myth was that Yuri had to fight his way into the blazing library, snatching one random volume and then escaping before the book depository went up in flames. A year before his death in 1999, Knorosov felt obliged to clear up the legend that had grown up around his acquisition of the volume that planted the seed for his first great achievement published in 1952: “Ancient Writings of Central America.”
He plainly told his biographer that there had been a “misunderstanding,” and that there was no fire in the library as he entered. The trophy he took, he said, was from among a large cache of books that had already been packed up, obviously ready to be shipped off, but never having made it out the library’s doors. Still, raging inferno or not, these twists of fate have to be considered as some of the most jaw-dropping footnotes in the chronicles of warfare, science or literature.
Three-quarters of a century later the brainstorm of another teenage boy, this one Canadian, can be added to the remarkable history of Mayanists’ discoveries, no matter the way the story ends. The fifteen year-old Quebecois was enthralled with both the Mayans and astronomy and had the flash of insight on his own to match Mayan constellations against a map of known Maya cities.
The location of those settlements lined up perfectly with the star map, the only problem being one too few Mayan cities. If a “lost city” should correlate with the constellation map, its whereabouts in the Yucatan jungle, if it truly existed, should now be known.
In 2015, the Canadian Space Agency took the hypothesis seriously enough to provide satellite imagery of the area in question in Mexico and — lo and behold — a rectangular anomaly was actually there to be seen, buried beneath the canopy of the tropical rainforest.
Spreading further and faster than Yuri Knorosov’s supposed teenage derring-do, the news of the impending discovery of a lost city potentially found by an adolescent raced across the globe. By 2016, however, it had become clear that the high-tech imagery garnered from Earth orbit was only that of an abandoned field.
Mexico has long ago bestowed on Yuri Knorosov the highest award it can bestow upon a non-citizen, the Order of the Aztec Eagle. But the media, anthropologists, and the public too, quickly lost interest in the other teenaged researcher when he too should be lauded and praised.
Most of science — certainly that of archaeology as well — is more extended successions of constant failures and stalls, punctuated every now and again with stunning successes, so the discoveries matter less than the scientific method employed in the search. And, taking note of empirical evidence and following plausible hunches from those clues that Nature leaves either hidden or in plain view sometimes pays extraordinary dividends.
Trial and error, often given short shrift by theorists who prefer answers figured out implicitly before moving forward, are in fact two of the great foundations of science. More important breakthroughs in science have come from guesswork and intuition than from half the degrees ever printed stacked one upon the other. Good researchers must first and foremost trust their own instincts.
Any teenager having learned those lessons merits our respect.
David Nabhan is a science writer, the author of "Earthquake Prediction: Dawn of the New Seismology" (2017) and three previous books on earthquakes. Nabhan is also a science fiction writer ("Pilots of Borealis," 2015) and the author of many scores of newspaper and magazine op-eds. Nabhan has been featured on television and talk radio all over the world. His website is www.earthquakepredictors.com. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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