Commander Chakotay

The Rubber Tree People

Mayan or Myth

by Spiletta42

Credits: Beta by Q.

Chakotay: The Walking Plot Hole

The Powers That Be at Paramount Studios have attempted to call Star Trek Voyager's Chakotay a Mayan, and have also claimed his home planet to be Dorvan V. Neither of these supposed facts fit any of the evidence presented in canon.

Dorvan V Or Trebus

Dorvan V fails to work as Chakotay's home planet for several reasons, the primary one being that Dorvan V is populated by an inaccurately depicted group of Native Americans from the US Southwest, while Chakotay is a wildly inaccurate depiction of a Mayan, although every single "fact" ever given regarding Chakotay's obviously fictional people -- the Rubber Tree People (a mistranslation of Olmec I believe) -- is specifically non-Mayan.

The inhabitants of Dorvan V most closely resemble the Hopi, although Hopi kachina dolls are referred to as "mansaras" in the episode, and what appears to be a kiva is called a "habak" to avoid any legal hassles with existing groups. (Nemecek 290)

Says the Star Trek Encyclopedia of Dorvan V: "A group of North American Indians from Earth settled there in 2350 and established a village in a small valley on the southern continent." (Okuda 121). Since Chakotay was born in 2329 (Endgame) this makes it impossible for him to have been born on Dorvan V, or even to have lived there at all prior to attending Starfleet Academy, yet Captain Sulu comes to Chakotay's home planet at least once prior to accepting his application. (Tattoo) Pushing Chakotay's birthdate forward to accommodate the Dorvan V dates would make him younger than Ensign Harry Kim, who was born in 2349. (Okuda, 691)

These facts are all canon, established in aired episodes, and they therefore override any vague rumors regarding the original intentions of the show's creators.

Producer Rick Berman obviously prescribes to the notion of the Panindian: that all Native Americans are the same. He also seems to feel that the Central American jungle is "close enough" to the desert of the American Southwest, but if fanfiction writers want to depict Chakotay as realistically as possible, we must disregard Dorvan V as a possibility, and turn to Trebus.

It has been claimed that Chakotay was originally intended to be from Dorvan V, the planet depicted in the TNG episode Journey's End. This is the strongest evidence pointing at Dorvan V. However, since Jeri Taylor wrote the Voyager series bible and then wrote the novel Pathways, which is based upon that series bible, and also worked on TNG, the fact that she names Trebus as his home planet holds greater significance.

Of course people hear the word "Indian" and promptly plug the stereotypical notion of the Plains Indian into their minds, and then assume that both groups of Indians seen within the Star Trek series must in fact be the same group.

This would be a little like assuming that the Chinese and Japanese are exactly alike culturally, because they're both Asian, and therefore two different Asian groups who happen to appear on the same television show (on different planets, no less) must be the same group for "simplicity." Yet notice how the Trek writers specify between characters who are French, Russian, American, Irish, etc. They even manage to keep Janeway and Kirk straight, despite the fact they both come from midwestern states with "I" names: Indiana and Iowa, respectively.

If you want to argue that two Native American groups would not have happened to settle in the Cardassian DMZ, pull out a star chart (Mandel 47) and take a look at the sheer size of it. The DMZ contains hundreds of planets. There are hundreds of culture groups native to the Americas. It really would not be such a coincidence. In fact, the less believable coincidence would occur if they were meant to be the same group.

There is the compromise suggested in fandom that since Dorvan is the name of the star in question, Trebus is the name, or alternate name, of the planet. Taken one step further, this allows us to assume that Trebus is perhaps the third, fourth, or sixth planet in that solar system while the planet depicted in TNG is the fifth planet. However, this raises the question about why the Enterprise D was only sent to evacuate one of the two planets.

Nothing in canon eliminates Trebus as the planet of Chakotay's birth, while the claim that he hails from Dorvan V is problematic at best. Finally, Pathways names Trebus specifically, and while not all fans agree that Pathways is canon, Dorvan V lacks any credible source at all.


We know from the episode Tattoo that at some period in history, Chakotay's ancestors -- referred to as the Rubber Tree People in that episode -- lived in the Central American jungle. (Ruditis 73) In speculating about these fictitious Rubber Tree People, the real inhabitants of that region must be considered.

The region extending from central Mexico through Central America is known by archaeologists as mesoamerica. Upon the arrival of the Spanish in 1519, the Mexica, or Aztecs, occupied the northernmost territory in mesoamerica, with the capital of their empire located in what is now Mexico City.

The Toltecs occupied central Mexico ca 950 to 1150 CE and disappeared long before the Spanish arrived, as did the Olmec, who lived in on the Mexican Gulf Coast ca 1300 - 400 BCE. I think it is safe to assume that neither group is linked to Chakotay's Rubber Tree People, although the Olmec have been called Rubber People.

Aspects of Olmec culture have been found among the Maya, so it is likely that their ideas influenced Mayan development. The Olmec were moundbuilders, as were an unknown people living in the Mississippian period as far north as the Ohio Valley. Other Olmec cultural influence can be seen in the North American Southeast.

Whether the Olmec influenced these groups directly, or influenced the Maya who in turn influenced people farther to the north, is unknown.

Toltec culture heavily influenced the Mexica, who were relative newcomers to the region, having migrated from the north. The Mexica were impressed by Toltec cultural artifacts and architecture, such as the Sun Pyramid at Teotihuacan, and sought to emulate them in the building of the Mexica capital Tenochtitlan.

The mesoamerican influences found in North America include the growing of maize (corn), which was originally a Mayan crop, the building of ballcourts located in parts of the North American Southwest, and perhaps even the much debated evidence of cannabalism at an Anasazi site in New Mexico.

The Name Issue

If the Star Trek writers initially intended for Chakotay to be a Mayan, then their first blunder is his name. Chac is the Mayan god of rain, a diety who demanded regular human sacrifices and dwelt in Xibalba, the Mayan underworld. Chac is prominent in ancient Mayan art, and is more than a relic of the ancient Mayan civilization. As of the twentieth century Chac was the only ancient Mayan diety still worshipped by the natives of the region, which makes it unlikely that he'd be forgotten by the twenty-fourth century.

While the two names are more similar in appearance than sound, twenty fourth century Mayans would use the Roman alphabet just as modern Mayans do in the twenty first century, and have been doing since the sixteenth century. Also, since Chakotay does not speak the native language of his people, as stated in Tattoo, it can be assumed that he grew up speaking Federation Standard, which bears a remarkable resemblance to English.

In any case, Chakotay's parents, had they been Mayan, would clearly have been aware of such a similarity, and would probably avoid naming their child after such a bloodthirsty diety.

Fandom frequently portrays characters, Tom Paris and B'Elanna Torres particularly, as shortening Chakotay's name to Chak. If he's Mayan, that would definitely create an issue.

Vision Quests

The aspect of Chakotay's heritage most used in canon is the tradition of the vision quest. In Star Trek canon, the character is portrayed as using a technological devise called an akoonah to induce his visions. He states that this device replaces a narcotic used previously. The implication is that his ancestors used peyote to induce visions.

Peyote was not used by the Maya, although it spread through many cultural groups in North America following the establishment of the Native American Church in the late nineteenth century.

The Maya achieved their hallucinatory state through the practice of bloodletting. After fasting, they would pierce the genitals, or sometimes the tongue, and bleed into a ceremonial bowl. They would then burn the blood, allowing the vision serpent to appear in the smoke.

While replacing peyote use with an akoonah seems plausible enough, the same is not true for the bloodletting ceremony, which contains deeper meaning. The Maya believe that their gods gave their own blood in creating the Earth, and that the favor must be returned.

Chakotay's visions also contrast sharply with Mayan belief. While Chakotay claims to possess a spirit guide, the form of which varies for each individual among his people, the Mayans always saw a vision serpent. This serpent would open its mouth, disgorging a dead ancestor with hopefully helpful advice.

In Chakotay's visions, he appears to enter a dreamscape to speak with his father, while in the Mayan tradition, the individual would remain in their own physical environment while the dead ancestor came to them through the vision serpent.

The Panindian Problem

The character of Chakotay suffers from an affliction common in Hollywood. As a Native American character, he is subject to the whims of the writers' regarding his cultural traditions, without any regard as to which Native American groups actually practiced a particular tradition.

Plains groups are the most often used as a basis for the cultural stereotype. Many of those groups used teepees and other implements made famous by the movie industry, cementing the image into the popular consciousness. Add to that generalizations such as the belief that all Native Americans were or are environmentalists, and most people fail to recognize the immense diversity among these cultural groups.

The assumption then arises that if one Native American group had a particular custom or belief, all the rest probably shared it, and from this arises the image of the panindian -- a mish mash of cultural features which don't necessarily fit together.

The most overwhelmingly common feature of the panindian is the belief that native peoples possess a deep respect for nature. Native Americans have long been stereotyped as environmentalists, despite the fact that such lump stereotyping is simply inaccurate.

Sentimental feelings towards the "Crying Indian" (Iron Eyes Cody) of the 1970's anti-littering television commercials typify the general public's view of the Native American. This romanticized new-age image of the dedicated environmentalist was rooted in the belief that Native Americans are pure of spirit, separate from and different than the majority of Americans, and a disappearing cultural group. None of this is accurate.

Native Americans are not extinct, they number in the millions. They cannot be typified by a single Pan Indian image, they are a widely diverse population with hundreds of different cultural traditions. And most importantly, they are just people, no more deserving of a pedestal than they are of being vilified as bloodthirsty savages, lazy drunks, rich casino owners, or whatever other negative label serves the moment.

The fact remains that the Native Americans, historically, did far less damage to the planet than white-dominated society is doing today, but then again, historically, everyone did far less damage before the Industrial Revolution. One really finds it challenging to completely destroy the planet without the use of fossil fuels, large factories, and a level of infrastructure so inefficient that it allows "gourmet" water to be shipped half way around the globe. After all, the planet is a pretty big place.

Several Native Americans have played a significant role in environmentalism, one of the earliest being Chief Seathl of the Suquamish band of the Coast Salish in the Puget Sound area, whose famous speech warned white settlers to take care of the land. Many groups of Native Americans practiced a variety of conservation techniques, such as allowing some fish to escape weirs.

Other practices, however, would not be condoned by environmentalists today. Slash and burn agriculture was common, particularly in the Northeast, and killing more animals than necessary for survival was a natural side effect of some hunting techniques. There is documentary evidence that the Chipewyan, who believed that game would always be abundant, were wasteful in their killing of caribou, taking only "fat, marrow, and tongues" and leaving the rest.

Despite the truth, the stereotype of the environmentalist panindian remains, and Chakotay's character is no exception. Yet the Maya lived in giant urban centers and were nearly as destructive to their environment as modern urban populations. Evidence has been presented which seems to indicate that the Maya abandoned their cities when their short-sighted habits brought about starvation and the collapse of their civilization.

Chakotay As A Contrary

In the episode Tattoo, Chakotay's heritage is very much central to the plot. In it, we learn that Chakotay's father considered him a contrary due to the fact that he was a breech birth. The notion of a contrary is a tradition among several Plains groups, most notably the Cheyenne, and it carries with it many specific rules.

A contrary is a man who does everything opposite. When he says yes, he means no. He is required to live apart from his group, may never marry, and may return to society only if another takes his place. (Sutton 270) It has absolutely nothing to do with behaving like a stubborn teenager or having conflicts with the father or other authority figure, nor does it involve breaking with the traditions of one's culture. Rather, it binds one to a very specific aspect of that culture.

Mayan tradition does not include any notion of a contrary, either as comparable to that of the Cheyenne tradition or in a manner consistent with the context of the episode Tattoo.

Sand Paintings

In the episode Resolutions Chakotay relaxes by creating sand paintings. Once again, the writers have chosen a Native American tradition seemingly at random and applied it to a character without considering the implications. Sand paintings are actually a Dinae (Navajo) tradition, and are not a hobby for the sake of art, but rather a sacred activity undertaken by the singer to restore balance to the universe.

The major goal of the Dinae religion is to compel the supernatural "Holy People" to restore balance and harmony in the universe. The people have ritual obligations to these Holy People, but they do not worship them in the sense that Christians worship their God.

Disharmony created by human activity can result in illness. The most basic, fundamental Dinae value is hozho: harmony, goodness, normality, balance, beauty, and success. In times of disharmony, hozho can be restored through prayer and ceremony.

The Dinae do not follow a specific ritual calendar, but restore hozho as needed. The responsible figure is the singer, and his actions in ceremony affect not only the specific person being healed, but also the individual's family, group, and people as a whole.

This lack of a calendar in the Dinae religious practices contrasts sharply to the Mayan obsession with keeping multiple calendars. Sandpainting does not fit with the claim that Chakotay is a Mayan.

The Medicine Bundle

Chakotay's frequently mentioned medicine bundle is also not a cultural feature of the Maya. This is a tradition from the northern plains groups such as the Lakota.

Mayan meditation required not personal artifacts wrapped in a bundle with a substitute for peyote, but instead a ceremonial bloodletting bowl and a sharp stingray spine for piercing the genitals. When Chakotay lays out the items from his bundle, neither of these items is present.

The Medicine Wheel

The "medicine wheel" that appears in the episode Cathexis is particularly problematic. The term is more correctly applied to large groundbased structures scattered throughout central Canada and the Dakotas. These are usually carved into rocky ground, with the patterns sometimes enhanced through the strategic placement of large stones. Yet Chakotay's "medicine wheel" appears to be a bit of painted deerskin with velcro-like properties -- stones stick to it while it is hanging vertically.

North American medicine wheels have been linked to the Sun Dance, yet another Plains tradition. Nothing discussed in the episode fits with the specifics of any Plains group, however, or in fact ties to that of any other cultural group. It appears to be pure fiction, and a google search for "Mountain of the Antelope Women" yields only the address of a women's health clinic in Utah.

Mayan representations of the four cardinal directions are typically square, and they have no known traditions involving a medicine wheel of any kind.

Facial Art

Chakotay's facial tattoo is the most visible aspect of his heritage. Its abstract nature sharply contrasts to all known Maya art. The Natchez people of the Southeast tattooed their noses to demonstrate their social status, and Inuit women tattooed their faces to signal adulthood.

The use of tattoos was known to other cultures in the Artic, as well as the Subartic and Great Basin regions. The Iroquois tattooed their bodies, but their use of face paint made facial tattoos impractical.

Chakotay's tattoo most closely resembles that of some California groups, although the practice was much more common among women. (Moulton 311)

Chakotay seems to have skipped the two most common practices of personal decoration among the Maya. He has failed to file his teeth into sharp points, and his father has neglected to flatten his forehead by strapping boards to his head after birth. While these practices have faded from use among the modern Maya, a group wishing to return to the ancient ways would likely consider them before adapting a practice completely unknown to their ancestors.

The Great Spirit

The claim that Chakotay is Mayan is also at odds with onscreen mentions of the Great Spirit, which does not fit with the polytheistic nature of the Mayan world view. Such stark contrast to Mayan religion would have caused conflict between the Rubber Tree People and the Maya, just as minor religious differences cause conflict in the modern world.

Since the Maya waged bloody wars against each other based on the movements of Venus, there is little doubt that they would quickly attack a people with whom they actually had reason to quarrel. Chakotay's ancestors, therefore, would have avoided contact with their neighbors as much as possible, for their own survival.

A Closer Look at the Maya

While many of Chakotay's cultural attributes are specifically non-Mayan, a closer look at the Maya people could reveal some similarities between Chakotay's heritage and the people that claim as his ancestors. Mayan studies is one of the most active fields in archaeology today, with a wealth of information available.

Uniting Aspects of Mayan Culture

The Maya are a people never united under a single rule, even at the height of their civilization. What made them one people was a shared world view, and a shared religion, as well as art and language.

Mayan art comes in many forms. The materials used include jade, ceramic, paint, plaster, wood, shell, and even flint. While much Mayan art depicts their gods and kings, it also includes the common people, and often includes humor. Statues have been found which depict clearly confused drunks and wrinkled old men expressing their interest in young women.

Yet while all Mayan art does not hold religious or political meaning, it does all hold meaning. Abstract design was a foreign concept. It is telling that Mayan languages use the same word for 'writing' and 'painting.' Even the simplest designs on utilitarian pottery consist of recognizable symbols, and items are never decorated for the sake of the design itself.

This central aspect of Mayan art contrasts sharply with Chakotay's facial tattoo, which is abstract in appearance and matches no known Mayan symbolism.

All of the symbols shown in the episode Tattoo, including an allegedly sacred stone, fail to match any known symbolism in Mayan culture. As for rock art, various forms are found throughout the western United States and Canada. The Chumash of California are particularly known for rock art, yet the most famous examples are representations of people, animals, and celestial objects, not abstract art, so one must look elsewhere for the Trek writers' inspiration.

Early Mayan Archaeology

Amateur archaeologist John Lloyd Stevens and artist Frederick Catherwood visited Copán in 1839 and rediscovered the ancient Maya, at least for the general public. The first structures the expedition found were twelve foot tall carved stone slabs that we now know as stelae, monuments built every twenty years to commemorate important events in the lives of kings.

Copán was a city of ten square miles, lost beneath centuries of rainforest regrowth. The Stevens expedition spent several months uncovering and documenting ruins in the area, before moving on to Palenque and Uxmal.

Illustrated with Catherwood's brilliant lithographs, Stevens' book Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán, published in 1842, captured the imagination of the public. Who were these great architects, and where had they gone?

They hadn't gone anywhere, of course. The descendants of those Mayan builders number in the millions, and still live in Central America and the Yucatán. They abandoned the cities, but they hardly vanished.

Yet to credit such architectural achievements to mere "jungle savages" seemed so implausible to people of European ancestry that they instead looked to the Egyptians, the Lost Tribes of Israel, and even the people of Atlantis as the possible inhabitants of these cities.

Some of these were the same explanations offered centuries ago to explain the origins of the native people of the New World. The Egyptians earned their new place on the suspect list on the merits of having built pyramids themselves, although the stepped pyramids of mesoamerica bare little resemblance to structures in the Middle East.

Stevens himself felt no need to tie the Mayan ruins to ancient Egypt or any other distant civilization. As he wrote on the matter:

"There was no necessity for assigning to the ruined city an immense extent, or an antiquity coeval with that of the Egyptians or of any other ancient and known people. What we had before our eyes was grand, curious, and remarkable enough. Here were the remains of a cultivated, polished, and peculiar people, who had passed through all the stages incident to the rise and fall of nations." (Fagan 343)

John Lloyd Stevens made several predictions that proved correct over a century later. Most importantly, he credited the ruins to indigenous people, rather than Old World immigrants, and he correctly guessed that the hieroglyphs on the monuments told the history of the people who built them. In the 1970's and 80's, when glyph translations took several important leaps forward, this idea proved accurate.

Before Stevens, Spanish army captain Antonio del Rio investigated stories of ruins in the jungle of Guatemala. Together with artist Ricardo Almendáriz, he rediscovered the ruins of Palenque. Their work was published in England in 1822 as Description of the Ruins of an Ancient City, Discovered Near Palenque. This was the second rediscovery of Palenque, the first coming in 1808 when Guillermo Dupaix and José Luciano Castañeda wrote descriptions of many of the monuments and named them in Spanish.

Descriptions and images from these expeditions caught Stevens' interest and led to his famous trip in 1839. Of his first look at Copán, he wrote, "America, say historians, was peopled by savages; but savages never reared these structures, savages never carved these stones." (Stiebing 183)

Early Translation Efforts

French cleric Charles Etienne Brasseur de Bourbourg never found Atlantis, which was no doubt his fondest wish, but he enabled Mayan studies to take a leap forward when he rediscovered Diego de Landa's Relación de las Cosas de Yucatán in 1863. He accurately deciphered the bar-and-dot number system as well as the Mayan personal pronoun u.

The Paris Codex was published in 1887 thanks to Leon de Rosny, who also published the first complete transcription of Landa's work, including the ABC, a Mayan alphabet he had obtained from an informant in the sixteenth century. Epigraphers now had some material with which to work, and could see that the writing system in the codices corresponded to that found on monuments.

Ernst Förstemann, royal librarian at Dresden, enjoyed easy access to the Dresden Codex in the last twenty years of the nineteenth century. He focused on understanding the Mayan calendar and number systems. His biggest discovery was that the calendar worked on two different cycles of time, the tzolk'in and the haab', and he also figured out the Long Count system, applying his findings correctly to a stela from Copán in 1894. (Foster 268)

The tzolk'in is the 260-day year, tracked by priests called daykeepers and used for sacred purposes. The solar year, or civil year, is known as the haab' and consists of eighteen months with twenty days each. The extra five days belong to an unlucky month known as Uayeb. Whether that month is part of the haab' or is considered to be outside it seems a matter of opinion, but a people who could track Venus with such astounding accuracy certainly knew the length of the solar year.

The Maya also kept a Long Count, which measured time from the start of the current age on Ahau 8 Cumku (August 13, 3114 BCE) to the scheduled end of this, the fourth version of creation, on December 23, 2012. It was Joseph Goodman who first successfully transferred dates from the Mayan Long Count into our Gregorian calendar.

Significant time periods included the twenty year katun and the four hundred year baktun. In the case of Copán, the end of a baktun correlated to massive change on two occasions, first when K'inich Yax K'uk'Mo' arrived from the west to found a dynasty, and then when that dynasty collapsed four hundred years later. (Stuart)

Today, breakthroughs in glyph translation allow us the luxury of such knowledge, but for much of the nineteenth century, most of the hieroglyphs remained a mystery, and were thought to pertain primarily to the calendar, and to astronomical predictions important to the Mayan priests. This idea stemmed from the discovery that the Mayan buildings aligned to the rising of the sun and to the movements of the planet Venus.

Predicting the whereabouts of Venus in the sky is no easy feat. The planet is relatively close to Earth, at least in astronomical terms. Venus is 0.267 AU (astronomical units) from Earth (Beatty 3), less than half the distance to Mars. Venus is also closer to the sun, and to further complicate matters, its orbit is faster. These facts combine to create a complex pattern of retrograde movement. Nearly 584 days pass before the Sun, Venus, and Earth return to the same alignment twice. Yet the Maya created a calendar predicting the motions of Venus that was accurate to within two hours in a five hundred year period.

This impressive accomplishment, when it was realized, lead to the assumption that the Maya were a peaceful people, led by astronomer priests. This idealization of the ancient Mayan civilization mirrored the misconceptions of North American indigenous people as noble savages, living in tune with nature.

That erroneous view persisted without significant challenge until 1946, when Giles Healey followed some native people to several hidden temples at Bonampak and laid eyes on colorful murals depicting warfare, torture, human sacrifice, and slavery.

Glyph Translation

Efforts at deciphering the Mayan hieroglyphs continued slowly in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Alfred Percival Maudslay, together with Annie Hunter and Henry Sweet, set the standard for recording site plans, publishing four volumes of records, drawings, and photographs by 1915.

Daniel Brinton of the University of Pennsylvannia urged the scientific community to do more work with the spoken Mayan languages, something clearly lacking in earlier efforts, and Eduard Seler pointed out many cultural ties linking the entire mesoamerican region.

In 1917 Herbert J. Spinden published a landmark work on the civilizations of Mesoamerica, combining a bulk of the available knowledge of the subject. The section on Mayan writing focuses almost exclusively on the calendar, and he seemed less than optimistic about finding historical details in the hieroglyphs:

"Mayan hieroglyphs resemble the Egyptian and Chinese hieroglyphs only in being 'sacred writing' that is not based upon an alphabet . . . Bishop Landa obtained what he supposed was a Mayan alphabet, but what he really obtained was a list of signs representing among other sounds the particular sounds he had asked for . . . Many hieroglyphs are pictographic and consist of abbreviated pictures of the thing intended or of some object connected with it." (Spinden 125)

He went on to state, "There seems no possibility of purely literary inscriptions." (Spinden 127) The types of glyphs then deciphered were limited to the following: the twenty day names, the nineteen months, the numbers from zero to nineteen, the four directions, the glyphs for a handful of individual gods, a few astronomical symbols, and a few glyphs relating to time.

The most significant steps forward between 1930 and 1960 included the decipherment of the Mayan lunar calendar by John Teeple, a method of structural analysis devised by Hermann Beyer, and the accomplishments of J. Eric S. Thompson, who published nearly three hundred papers and two texts on the hieroglyphs which are still used despite the outdated nature of some of his conclusions, which were rooted in his firm belief that the Mayan hieroglyphs were not phonetic.

Thompson gained his most enduring fame when he deciphered the Short Count, a dating method unique to the northern Yucatán, thus enabling an increased understanding of Chichén Itzá.

Yet for all of the progress in the decipherment of glyphs relating to time, astronomy, and mathematics, the histories of individuals eluded Mayanists as a majority of the script remained a mystery. Scholars attempting to use Landa's ABC failed completely, many declaring it an outright fraud. These unsuccessful decipherments from a phonetic viewpoint reinforced the belief that the Mayan script was ideographic in nature.

In the early 1950's most scholars still believed that the Mayan cities were 'vacant ceremonial centers' inhabited only by a handful of priests, and that the common people only traveled to them for ceremonies. The rainforest was too impoverished, they claimed, it could never support cities, or give rise to civilization without outside help.

They still viewed the glyphs as representing nothing more than astrological data, claiming that to record history and the lives of real kings would be sacrilegious to the Maya. Furthermore, most people still believed the glyphs to be logograms -- symbols which represented a word or phrase with no hint of pronunciation -- with perhaps a few rebus signs making an appearance from time to time. This basic misconception prevented translation of a large majority of the glyphs.

Enter Yuri Knorosov.

A Russian soldier and linguistic scholar, Yuri Knorosov rescued Mayan texts from Germany prior to the end of World War II. Upon studying the materials, Knorosov was struck by similarities between the difficulties in translating the Mayan hieroglyphs and the history of the translation of Egyptian hieroglyphic writing.

The earliest form of Egyptian hieroglyphic writing long resisted translation because scholars incorrectly assumed that the alleged sacredness of the writing rendered it untranslatable by anyone except a trained ancient Egyptian priest. They focused instead on the demotic portion of the Rosetta Stone, which was clearly a direct translation of the Greek. That the hieroglyphs appeared in the same context, and that all three scripts might correlate, was frequently ignored until the brilliant Jean-François Champollion tackled the problem in the 1820's. (Cottrell 25)

Inspired by the work of Champollion, hero of Egyptian linguistics, and using Landa's ABC as a starting point, Knorosov gave new consideration to the possibility that Mayan writing did have a phonetic base.

Knorosov theorized that Maya used a mixed writing system, combining the phonetic and semantic elements, similar to Sumerian. The three known surviving codices of the time contained a combined total of 287 individual signs, excluding variants. This number would be impossibly high for a pure alphabet, but also far too low for a writing system limited to ideograms, or logograms. The highly logographic Chinese language utilizes seven thousand characters. (Coe 181)

English, on the other hand, uses twenty-six alphabetic characters to build around thirty-five phonemes. A phoneme is a single speech sound, or a minimum unit of distinctive sound features. (Pei 167) Most spoken languages use between fifteen and sixty phonemes, with the average falling between thirty and forty. (Kottak 371)

Knorosov agreed with Thompson and others regarding Landa's 'ABC' in that it did not produce a usable Mayan alphabet. The informant clearly misunderstood the project. When asked to translate "B" into his language, he wrote not the symbol for the letter B, or the sound of the letter B, but rather the glyph for the Yucatec word 'be' which means 'road'.

Understanding that Landa's work produced not an alphabet, but instead a flawed syllabary, Knorosov recognized patterns in the Mayan words. Words of the consonant-vowel-consonant variety were written with two syllabic signs, creating a consonant-vowel, consonant-vowel pattern. The final vowel was not pronounced.

Take for example Pacal, legendary king of Palenque. His name, meaning 'hand shield' may be written two ways. It can be represented logographically with a picture of a hand shield, or spelled out phonetically with glyphs: pa-ca-la. The final 'a' is dropped.

Once researchers had a way to pronounce the glyphs, they were able to compare the results to the spoken language of the contemporary Maya. Of course first Knorosov first had to convince them to try.

Initially, his work drew little attention, but fortunately Michael and Sophie Coe, major figures in Mayan studies, happened upon a Spanish translation of one of his articles, and Sophie Coe translated it into English. Once more widely read, his ideas met with resistance, especially from Thompson, who argued against his theories in print.

Then David H. Kelley used Knorosov's theories to decipher a hieroglyphic inscription at Chichén Itzá. Kelly's book Deciphering the Maya Script followed. Published in 1976, it swayed those who still doubted the phonetic decipherment, ushering in a new era of translation.

Those who had argued longest in favor of logographs had reason to do so, because many words were represented as such. Words could be represented with a logograph, with phonetic signs, or with both. For example, a very important Mayan word is witz which translates as either mountain or pyramid, depending on the context. They also had at least four other words which sometimes meant hill or mountain: puuk, mul, buk'tun, and tzuk. (Schele and Mathews 22)

When using the logograph for witz they would frequently use the phonetic symbol for 'wi' in front of it. This appeared as wi-witz, but Mayan readers would know this eliminated other hill-related words, and that the first 'wi' was not pronounced. Alternately, witz could be spelled purely phonetically, using the signs for 'wi' and 'tzi', which required the knowledgeable Mayan reader to drop the final vowel.

Mayanists point to a critical moment in 1973 as a turning point in the understanding of the Maya. It was the last day of the First Palenque Round Table, and Mayan experts from around the world poured over the hieroglyphic inscriptions of the still mysterious city known as Palenque. At the beginning of the conference, the idea that the glyphs might spell out real events was still the 'historical hypothesis' as championed by Tatiana Proskouriakoff in a series of papers throughout the 1960's. As the conference attendees worked, the lives and words of seven kings emerged from the texts, giving real life to the ancient city, and the hypothesis was essentially proven. (Schele and Mathews 328)

Altar Q

One of the most dramatic illustrations of erroneous assumptions falling away in the face of translation is the study of Altar Q at Copán. The sixteen figures represented upon it were first thought to be "a conference of peaceful astronomer-priests" perhaps having a discussion "related to the lunar cycles" as allegedly spelled out on the top of the altar. This view permeates all of the literature on the subject well into the 1970's.

Even in light of the bloody murals at Bonampak, the notion that a people so advanced in thought must be primarily peaceful held sway. Even as a history full of warfare and ritual sacrifice was revealed through the translation of hieroglyphs, the figures on Altar Q remained astronomer-priests until the 1980's.

Yet Altar Q is not related to lunar cycles at all, nor are the figures pictured a meeting of contemporaries, astronomers or otherwise. The sixteen figures are the kings of Copán, seated on their name glyphs, and the glyphs on the top of the altar tell the story of how the founder of the dynasty came to Copán.

Careful decipherment of the hieroglyphs transforms Altar Q into a portrayal of real people, kings seated upon their name glyphs. The sixteenth king is Yax Pahsaj Chan Yopaat: The Sky is Newly Revealed. Next is K'ahk' Yipyaj Chan K'awiil, Fire is the Strength of the Sky God K'Awiil. Also depicted are Waxaklajun Ubah K'awiil, the famous King 18 Rabbit; K'ahk' Uti' Chan, Fire is the Mouth of the Snake; and B'ahlam Nehn, the Jaguar Mirror. (Stuart)

Well after the other fifteen kings were identified, the first figure defied identification. Unlike the others, he sat not on a name glyph, but on the glyph for 'lord'. His manner of dress was different, and he wore the eye goggles sometimes worn by the rain god Chac.

Some scholars speculated that he could be a god, his presence reinforcing the notion that the kings received their right to the throne by divine means. Then in 1986, David Stuart realized the truth. His name could be found in his headdress. Close examination revealed a quetzal feather, a macaw, a sun symbol, and the glyph for yax. Added together, they spell K'Inich Yax K'uk Mo' or Great Sun Green Quetzal Macaw, the founder of the great dynasty at Copán. The story of how he came to Copán from the west is told on the top of the altar.

The Popol Vuh

The Popol Vuh represents a very different type of translation. When Diego de Landa burned most of the Mayan screenfold books in 1562, any hieroglyphic versions of the Popol Vuh were lost. Representatives of several noble families of the Quiché Maya secretly rewrote the Popol Vuh from memory, using the Roman alphabet they had learned from the Spanish priests.

That screenfold versions of the Popol Vuh were among Landa's victims seems likely to the point of certainty, and that of the hundreds of volumes lost, the Maya chose the Popol Vuh to restore reinforces its importance.

The text of the alphabetic Popol Vuh often reads like it is describing an illustration, like the transcribers are closing their eyes to mentally picture what was lost. The modern reader can't help but to share their pain.

In 1701, Francisco Ximénez found a copy of the alphabetic Popol Vuh and translated it into Spanish, and in 1857 his translation was published in Vienna. Four years later it was translated into French and published in Paris. Then in 1911, the Spanish manuscript turned up in Chicago.

Those working with the Popol Vuh were reading a familiar alphabet, and scholars relied on the initial Spanish translation by Ximénez, while virtually ignoring the Mayan transcription beside it.

That changed in 1996, when Dennis Tedlock of SUNY Buffalo did a new translation from the Mayan. His work was made possible by new understandings of Mayan art, language, and culture. The new interpretations proved significant.

Popol Vuh means 'council book,' but the work also has a second name: Saq petenaq ch'apa palo. Ximénez, and therefore those who followed, read this as "The Light That Came From Across the Sea." Tedlock found that a more accurate translation is "The Light That Came From Beside The Sea." (Tedlock 63)

The difference between 'beside' and 'across' seems subtle, but that difference is actually quite significant. If this light that showed the Quiché Maya so much about their world came from across the sea, then the interpretation could be that it came from the gods. Water is the gateway to the underworld.

However, that it came from beside the sea roots the Popol Vuh's origin in the real world. They learned this creation story from a people living on the coast. A case could be made that this refers to the Olmec, a civilization already known to have greatly influenced both the Maya and Mexica peoples.

Other changes are also notable. The Hero Twins heal the falcon's eye not with innocuous "sorrel gum" but rather with the "blood of sacrifice," (Tedlock 115) a telling statement about the power the Maya see in human blood.

In the Mayan world view, the spilling of blood has the power to keep the apocalypse at bay, and help the sun to escape Xibalba -- the underworld -- and rise each day. Part of the human soul resides in the blood, and to give one's own blood to the gods through autosacrifice and bloodletting is to give a part of the soul.

The gods created human beings by spilling their own blood upon the maize ground into flour by Xmucane, and therefore human beings must repay the blood debt to maintain the balance necessary for the continuation of the world.

The older translation of the Popol Vuh tells us that the "the emergence of all the sky-earth" took time, which seems to contradict the later passage, which claims, "It rose suddenly, just like a cloud, like a mist, now forming, unfolding." (Tedlock 65)

In the new translation, the word tzuk' is translated as 'lighting,' which makes the earlier phrase "the lighting of all the sky-earth," (Tedlock 63) and the conflict disappears. In Quiché Mayan, the verb stem tzuk'u refers to the placing of a light, such as a candle or a torch, in a high place. (Tedlock 219) Tzuk can also mean "belly," which doesn't apply, or "partition" (Schele and Mathews 417) which could refer to the separation of the earth from the sea, but is less likely because other uses of "partition," such as on Stela J at Copán, (Schele and Mathews 136) use it as a noun.

One of the most exciting changes in the new translation is the new interpretation of Pan Paxil as "Split Place" rather than "Broken Place," because this ties the story to a real place. The modern Maya know it as "Paxal" in the western highlands of Guatemala, and the people living near it say that maize originated from a split in that mountain, just as does the Popol Vuh. (Tedlock 145)

Common art and mythology are the unifying features of the Mayan people, and the new understanding of these creative expressions and religious beliefs made possible by eight katuns of study are invaluable.

Since Stevens published his original account in 1842, we've come from puzzling over the mysterious remains of a "vanished" civilization to reading a detailed history of a people whose descendants number in the millions.

We now know enough about the Maya to form a picture of how they thought about their world, and how they lived as a result. Their obsession with time, and the possibility that it could reach a cataclysmic end, led to their elaborate calendar system, complex ceremonies, warfare, and human sacrifice.

The Mayan Calendars

Like England's King George III, who filled his palace with clocks and prowled around winding them each night, lest time stop and run backwards towards some of the more horrific events in his past, the Mayan believed that using multiple methods of measuring time would guard against its coming to an end.

They used three primary calendars, and also kept several more, such as their calendars for Venus and the lunar cycle. The tzolk'in, or sacred year, consisted of 260 days, each of which possessed both a name and a number. There are twenty day signs, and when combined with the numbers one through thirteen, this provides for 260 unique days before the cycle repeats, starting a new tzolk'in.

The first day of the year is 1 Imix, the first day sign combined with the first number. When the fourteen day, Ix, is reached, the cycle of numbers as returned to one, making the day 1 Ix. On the twenty-first day of the year, the day signs repeat for the first time, while the numbers on this cycle have reached eight, making the day 8 Imix.

The daykeepers kept track of this, and also knew the personalities of each possible day. They could tell the kings if a particular activity matched the personality of a given day, or if it would prove easier to postpone an event for a day more suited to it.

The nineteenth month of the solar year -- the haab' -- only contained five days, all of which were considered unlucky, but since the haab' and the tzolk'in ran on different schedules, these unlucky days in the month of Uayeb would only have the same names every fifty-two years and no particular day signs need carry the burden each year.

One of the most worrisome events for the Maya occurred when the end of the haab' and the end of the tzolk'in aligned to fall on the same day, as happened every fifty-two years. With two different kinds of years closing together, the gods could well find this to be a logical time to put an end to it all.

In order to keep the sun in motion during this frightening time, the most elaborate rituals were necessary. The sun god needed his strength to escape Xibalba each morning, and for this he required the sustenance of human blood.

The Ritual Ballgame

The blood sacrifice necessary to prevent the end of the world when the haab' and the tzolk'in aligned could be accomplished through the ritual sacrifice which followed a ballgame, a sport which itself represented the need for human intervention to keep the sun -- the ball -- in motion.

Ballplayers could not touch the rubber ball with their hands, instead directing its movements with a yoke attached to their hip. While players wore elaborate costumes, they rarely wore any padding for the games. This seems logical. If you're likely to be decapitated later in the day, one tends not to worry too much about bruises.

Sometimes ballgames were deliberately fixed, or at least the home team was given a significant advantage. Captives from recent military conflicts would be starved, weakening them before the game in the guise of giving them a chance to show devotion to the gods through fasting before their almost certain death.

Mayan artwork shows the ball as representing both the sun god and as a severed human head. Decapitation is a recurring theme in the Popol Vuh, although the victims continue to lead productive and eventful lives afterwards. The maize god fathers the Hero Twins after being decapitated, and later, when the Xibalbans order the Hero Twins to sacrifice each other, it doesn't prove fatal, thanks to some fast thinking and a convenient squash, and in fact contributes to their father's escape from the underworld.

The maize god, his brother, and his sons the Hero Twins were all ballplayers, and all suffered decapitation at some point. Following a ballgame, the losers were frequently beheaded in a reenactment of these events.

Human Sacrifice

Severed heads didn't find their way back onto the ballcourt to serve as a ball nearly as frequently as guides would have tourists believe. Human heads quite simply don't bounce as efficiently as rubber balls, although on occasion a head could be sealed in latex, and sometimes captives were bound in the shape of a ball and bounced down pyramid steps.

The ballgame was a widespread mesoamerican practice, and the Mexica, or Aztecs, seemed to take the sacrifice aspects a few steps further than did the Maya, and the argument has been made that they performed sacrifices much more frequently.

Anthropologist Marvin Harris put forth the theory that the Aztec practice of frequent human sacrifice stemmed from a need more prosaic than the appeasement of bloodthirsty gods, as it served to distribute protein to a dense urban population in a culture with no domesticated animals. (Kottak 231)

Unlike the people of North America, the populations of mesoamerica did not have access to large herds of big game animals, like the buffalo, and hunting did not contribute to their diet on a scale large enough to be significant to so dense a population. The Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan supported 300,000 inhabitants. (Townsend 25)

While the Incas, who built Machu Picchu in what is now Peru, domesticated the llama, and the Maya supplemented their diets with domesticated guinea pigs, the Aztecs lacked domesticated animals. Possibly as a result of this difference, those who had their still-beating hearts fed to the Aztec gods were afterwards stewed with tomatoes and chili peppers. There is no evidence that the Maya practiced cannibalism.

Unlike those beheaded following a ballgame, or after being captured in battle, Mayan sacrifices to the rain god Chac were thrown whole into cenotes (the Mayan word is dzonot), and were most often still alive. The Maya believed that the cenotes were gateways to Xibalba, and that Chac lived in the underworld. Those thrown into the cenotes alive were not thought to die. They were meant to travel to Xibalba and serve Chac, who would reward the people with much needed rain.

Evidence seems to indicate that the Mayan methods of sacrifice changed after the arrival of the Spanish. Partly due to the new need for secrecy, and partly to meet the need to incorporate new Christian beliefs into the existing religion, the shamans made changes in their rituals.

The need to hide the evidence following a sacrifice may also account for the remains of victims in the cenotes who show signs of decapitation and heart removal. Previously, those sacrificed to gods other than Chac would have their severed heads displayed on skull racks, but the Spanish made that impossible, and what better hiding place than the underworld itself?

In 1562 Diego de Landa tried to stamp out "idolatry" among the native people not just by destroying sacred objects and burning Mayan screenfold books, but also by torturing people into confessing practices of human sacrifice. The written records of those confessions are viewed with some skepticism, as they were obtained through torture and threat of torture, which tends to result in statements that the interrogator seems to want to hear, but these confessions have lead archaeologists to many cenotes containing human remains.

The bones excavated from Cenote of Sacrifice at Chichén Itzá belonged primarily to males between the ages of seven and fifteen, and many of those showed signs of severe malnourishment (Romey 49) This indicates that either sacrifices to Chac were made in greater number during famine, which is when rain would be needed the most, or that sacrifice victims were kidnapped from, or perhaps purchased from, lower class families. Or perhaps all of that is true to some extent. Many of the Landa confessions name victims as having been kidnapped.

Alternately, the high number of malnourished young bodies could indicate an alternate form of honored burial during hard times.

Edward Thompson's excavation at Chichén Itzá in the early twentieth century did not preserve the original bone positions, and much information was lost as a result. Cenote explorations since the 1960's, when scuba gear became more generally available, have been limited to non-recovery surveys. Attempts to drain cenotes resulted in disaster. Without the support provided by the water, they simply collapse. Diving is the only way to access objects, and the Instituto Nacional de Antropologia y Historia must approve all excavations. Currently, archaeologists may not even brush sediment from remains or artifacts while photographing them, and to protect sites from looters, published accounts of non-recovery surveys often lack locations.

Sacrifices to Chac weren't always human. The rain god was also sent gifts of material goods, including valuable jade carvings, pottery, and more perishable goods such as food. Some pottery photographed during dives into the cenotes still contains maize.

Cultural Influence

Mesoamerican culture is known to have spread its influence throughout the precolumbian Americas. The Maya first domesticated maize, a crop grown by agricultural people throughout North America. Their beliefs about multiple human souls and a square world representing just one layer of creation is mirrored by the people of southeastern North America.

The native people of the Southeast region viewed "This World" as a large, flat island in an ocean, beneath a vault of rock that rose and fell from the passage of the Sun and the Moon, both viewed as deities who lived in the Upper World above this one. The Upper World was organized like This World, with towns, chiefs, and councils. The Under World represented chaos and disharmony. Sometimes the inhabitants of the Under World harassed the people in This World.

These worlds were also inhabited by spirits, which could cause harm if offended. The goal of the religion was to maintain harmony and purity. Doing things improperly violated harmony, and was considered a manifestation of evil. That witches could use imbalance for personal power was a dominant belief, as it is among the Navajo and numerous other groups.

As did the people of Mesoamerica, those of the North American southeast placed significance of the four cardinal directions: north, south, east, and west. The Earth hung from the Upper World from ropes in these four locations.

The Southeastern afterlife was similar to the Mesoamerican concept as well. People had both souls and ghosts, just as the Maya possessed multiple spirits. The soul deserved respect, and its wishes had to be honored. It traveled to the afterlife, while ghosts tended to hang around town until people drove it away with shouting. People who could not be properly buried were mourned more deeply than those who died at home.

Like the Maya, the Dinae (Navajo) bury umbilical cords beneath their homes, rooting their children in the land. Skulls with filed teeth have been found among the Anasazi, indicating that at least a few mesoamericans -- possibly traders, possibly invaders -- happened to die in what is now New Mexico.

Recent Discoveries

Archaeologists continue to add to our knowledge of the Maya on a regular basis. The dig at El Mirador is revealing a huge city that dates to 400 BCE - well back into the Preclassic, a time when the Maya were thought to live in small village settlements. A temple at the site bears iconology which may relate to Great Fiery Jaguar Paw, one of the kings listed on a vase that represents a previously unknown dynasty, with dates apparently well back into the Preclassic.

Other recent finds include the location of Site Q, a mural dating to at least 100 BCE, and a previously unknown site located from space using a new technique for analyzing satellite imagery.

Site Q represents the type of mystery that frustrates archaeologists. Mayan objects have long turned up in museums and private collections as a result of looting, with no record of where they were originally recovered. Since these objects tend to vary regionally, a repeating pattern among these objects led archaeologists to suspect that looters had found one site as yet unknown to archeology.

Dubbed "Site Q" - short for "que" - it was not formally discovered until September of 2005, when a team including Marcello Canuto of Yale University found an in-situ panel of hieroglyphs at a site in Guatemala. Said Canuto in a September 27 press release, "This panel exactly mirrors the style, size, subject matter, and historical chronology of the Site Q texts."

The study of the Maya remains one of the most active fields of archeology today. Approximately twenty percent of the hieroglyphs still await decipherment, although that number is declining steadily, and multiple digs are turning up new finds at a rapid rate. While many of the misconceptions about the so-called "mysterious" Maya have been put to rest, there is still much to learn.

Rubber Tree People: Myth, Not Mayan

The only aspect of Mayan culture that Chakotay's clearly fictitious people seem to share is environmental. Chakotay's people, like the Maya, lived in the jungles of Central America. Chakotay has mentioned, in a non-canon novel and not onscreen, that the jaguar has some meaning for his people.

The Maya also include some mentions of the jaguar in their mythology. Since both groups would have encountered jaguars in their physical surroundings, this does not support a common heritage.

It is my conclusion that the Rubber Tree People have little to do with any known cultural group, and that there is at least some possibility that in trying to revive their lost culture, the twenty-fourth century descendants incorporated cultural aspects that were not originally native to their ancestors.

Chakotay, as a trained anthropologist, should have recognized this possible cultural contamination, although he never mentioned it in canon.

For fanfiction writers, the bottom line is this: Star Trek is fiction, and the official writers got sloppy. Fans can choose to be less sloppy when delving into Chakotay's past, presenting a more accurate portrayal than did Rick Berman's regime.


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Web Exhibits

Yale University Website - Breaking News on Site Q

© Spiletta42 2006.