Monday, February 28, 2011

There Be Gold ...

Bild magazine has just published an article about German mathematician Joachim Rittstieg's claim that page 52 of the Dresden codex records an earthquake on October 30, 666 B.C. destroyed the Maya capital city of Atlan, which sank beneath the waves of Lake Izabal, concealing a treasure of 2156 tablets of gold, that together weigh 8 tonnes. It is not clear which "Page 52" Rittstieg is referring to (there are two pages bearing this number, depending on which sequence you follow), but it matters not which of these two he is considering. This claim, of course, should be laughable. There is no evidence the ancient Maya had any gold, let alone 8 tonnes of it, prior to the Late Classic and even then it arrived only as small jewels brought in from lower Central America as trade items. Even when the Spanish arrived, at the end of the Late Postclassic, there was so little gold in the Maya area that it was one of the last areas of Mesoamerica to be subjugated by the conquistadors, as there simply wasn't the financial incentive to conquer lands so bereft of the primary resource they were after. "The Maya" had no capital city, certainly not in the 7th century B.C., when most Maya sites were still relatively simple farming villages. The Lake Izabal area, in fact, never saw the rise of any major cities along its banks, or on any islands, a curiosity given how attractive this area should have been for Maya settlement.

This situation would be laughable if the story hadn't been picked up by Guatemalan newspaper Prensa Libre and reported as if this was a credible theory and not simply utter nonsense without even the slightest credibility. Prensa Libre reports a lot on ancient Maya discoveries in Guatemala and should have higher standards than this. Bild magazine isn't even held in high esteem by Germans, and should never form the source for a story, especially one on the ancient Maya. Sadly, journalism today is all about sensationalism and the "scoop" and it seems that too often a lot of the news media feel it is easier to print a retraction rather than do the necessary background information to vet a "fantastic" story that too easily is shown to be pure fantasy. 

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Decline in Tourism to Tikal

This article from the Prensa Libre in Guatemala indicates that tourism to Tikal has declined for the fifth year in a row. Part of the decline could be blamed on the volcano/hurricane double whammy that hit Guatemala City in late May of 2010. I visited Tikal during this time and there was practically not a single other soul in the park at that time, when normally there would be many hundreds of visitors every day. The general decline in tourism following the 2008 economic crash could not have helped either, but if this is the fifth straight year of declining number of visitors this does not explain the general trend. The article suggests a lack of air transport may be the biggest reason, but I am skeptical. There are daily flights to Flores from Guatemala City and relatively easy transport from Belize. Guatemala would do well to improve the road between Flores and Melchor de Mencos, however, and escalating violence between authorities and drug gangs does not help tourism. The forthcoming years will be interesting ones in terms of Guatemala's ability to harness this lucrative source of income.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Language(s) of Scrabble

Those who know me know that my sister Margo and I always engage in "scrabble death matches" when we get together, usually only about once a year, during the holidays. These are very competitive matches, and while one of us may bomb out in a set of games, we usually recover and get our revenge back the next time. What has interested me over the last few years of these scrabble death matches is how my own work with foreign and ancient languages has actually made this game much tougher on me, which you might not think would be the case. The trouble is that with the 7 tiles you are allowed in scrabble you are supposed to derive words that you can add to the board. The trouble that I have is that most of the words that first pop into my mind are in other languages. While I used to play scrabble with some Mexican friends, in which we allowed words in either Spanish or English, Margo and I have stuck to English-only in terms of our games. And thus I have to usually go through numerous words in my head before I'll find one that is actually usable in our games. Or, at least that's my excuse for taking so long on my turns.