The Mysterious Mayan Alphabet

Contributor: Brian Anthony. Lesson ID: 11948

Have you learned a foreign language? You most likely had a teacher or parent and, perhaps, textbooks. What if you had none of those, and the "letters" were very strange? Welcome to the Mayan alphabet!



learning style
personality style
Otter, Golden Retriever
Grade Level
Middle School (6-8), High School (9-12)
Lesson Type
Dig Deeper

Lesson Plan - Get It!

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This is some seriously beautiful artwork, isn't it? What if someone told you this was actually a piece of writing? What do you imagine it says?

Their pyramids rise up out of the jungles of Central America.

They built remarkable, advanced cities and mastered the science of astronomy. They were pioneers of the written word and penned thousands of books. By the time the Spaniard conquistadors arrived, however, their cities were mere ruins. Today, only a handful of their books remain. The descendants of this proud people have survived up until the present in countries like El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, but we are only beginning to understand their ancestors and the civilization they built — and then mysteriously abandoned.

An important key to understanding the people of the past, their history, and their ideas, is to read their books. That seems simple enough. What if you don't understand their language, or even more, what if you can't even decipher the letters they used to write down their language? That was the biggest hurdle to overcome in understanding the Mayan civilization: interpreting their unusual alphabet.

Let's look at the history of how anthropologists cracked the Mayan code. As you read about the efforts to understand Mayan writing in the article, "Deciphering Maya Glyphs," courtesy of The Independence Hall Association, write down the information and ideas you uncover that help answer the following questions:

  • About how long have anthropologists been working at the mystery of Mayan writing?
  • Why do so few of the thousands and thousands of original Mayan texts survive up to the present?
  • Who made the most significant breakthroughs?

Share your findings with your parent or teacher, and then discuss the following questions:

  • Why do you think deciphering the Mayan system of writing was such a challenge?
  • What evidence or clues do you think researchers used to crack the code?
  • If you discovered a text that used an ancient and unknown system of writing, what steps might you take to crack its code?

The symbols used to represent sounds in the Mayan language are so complex that they look like tiny works of art.

In the Got It? section, practice identifying these images to see how they really work.

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