Reinterpreting a “Creation” Text from Chancala, Mexico

Fig. 1. Sawn section of a panel, probably from Chancala, Mexico (From Mayer 1991:Pl.96).

The incomplete text panel shown in Figure 1, now in a private collection in Florida, has been the focus of some attention since it was first commented upon by Schele, Friedel and Parker (1993:66) in their analysis of ancient Maya creation mythology surrounding the date 4 Ahaw 8 Kumk’u. It was first published by Mayer (1991:Pl. 96) and more recently by Van Stone (2010); a photograph by Justin Kerr also is available. Given the increasing interest in the base-date of the Long Count calendar and its upcoming repetition in 2012, it seems a few words about the interpretation of this partial inscription might be important, especially since widely published readings of the glyphs look to be incorrect in some key details. Others have made similar points in re-assessing this inscription — Steve Houston and Marc Zender in particular — so this is meant to be no more than a summary of more current thinking on the inscription.

The text begins in mid-sentence, with a partion of a Calendar Round date “8 Zip” (8-CHAK-AT). A distance number then follows, written oddly as 18-0-WINIK-ja-ya. These numbers as written simply don’t work, however, and there’s little question that the scribe has here made an error. The date resulting from this calculation is shown later as 4 Ahaw 8 Kumk’u, and the only means of connecting “8 Zip” and “8 Kumk’u” is to make a slight adjustment in the distance number as its written, from 18.0 to *16.0 (“18 Winals” would be an impossibility in any case). So we have the following chronological link between these two dates being the most likely:

[9 Ahaw] 8 Zip
+*16.0 (written in error as 18.0)
4 Ahaw 8 Kumk’u

We have no idea what transpired on the earlier date; that section of the text remains missing.

4 Ahaw 8 Kumk’u will be familiar to many as the Calendar Round for the so-called “Creation” date that serves as the base-line for the shortened Long Count, falling on Here it almost certainly does not correspond to, but instead to a far, far later position in the Long Count, probably near the so-called Terminal Classic era of Maya history. The main reason for thinking this comes from the glyphs that follow the date, which Schele, Freidel and Parker (1993:65) translated as “the first image turtle was seen.” They got it nearly correct, but some key details force us to reassess their interpretation. The verb at pB3 they originally read as IL-la-ji-ya, for ilajiiy, “it was seen,” a passive construction (Schele et al transliterated this as ilahi, following older conventions of Maya epigraphy). However, a closer look at the glyphs clearly shows that this verb takes the initial sign yi-, infixed into the main eye main sign. This would spell the ergative third-person pronoun (u)y- before the initial i- of ilajiiy, meaning that it cannot be a passive verb construction (intransitives, unless they are nominalized, can never take an ergative pronoun prefix). Yilajiiy is well known in ancient texts, functioning either as a derived transitive form, “he saw it,” or as a participial noun “his seeing it” (both interpretations are debated and have merit, although opting for one over the other doesn’t change the meaning of the passage). The subject of this statement comes next in the personal name Yax K’oj Ahk (YAX-k’o-jo a-AHK). Schele et. al., interpreted this as a deity, namely the turtle (ahk) represented in some mythical scenes of the rebirth of the maize god (see Schele, et. al. 1993:65). However, this is far more likely to be a name of a local king or ruler, for the glyph after the name reads Chak K’uh Ajaw, “the Chak K’uh Lord.” Chak K’uh is a known but fairly obscure emblem glyph that I have for some years now associated with the ruins of Chancala, located to the south of Palenque. One fragmentary relief from Chancala bears the same emblem title (see Stuart and Stuart 2008:235), as does a panel that Mary Miller and I long ago posited might be from the same region (Miller and Stuart 1981).

Fig. 2. K'inich Janab Pakal "witnesses" a period ending. PAL:T.I.middle (Drawing by L. Schele)

Yax K’oj Ahk therefore was a historical ruler from the court of Chak K’uh, who “saw” the day 4 Ajaw 8 Kumk’u in his lifetime — not the original “Creation” date, of course, but a recurrence of the same Calendar Round at a far later time. Similar references to the witnessing of period endings and anniversaries are common in Maya texts (Figure 2), and imply some degree of “oversight” of the events and rituals involved with their celebration. As others have noted, there is no reason to consider it a mythical reference.

The text goes on to mention an interval of nine years (9-HA’B-ya) reckoning forward to another date now missing, but which we can easily calculate as 7 Ahaw 3 Pax.

The proportions and style of the glyphs look to me to be late, falling in the so-called Terminal Classic period in early ninth century. Only one placement of the dates in the Long Count seems fitting, anchored to 4 Ahaw 8 Kumk’u (see below for all three positions).

Transcription of Text (designating the two columns as A and B, and the rows by number; the “p” indicates “provisional” given the incomplete nature of the text):
pA1: 8 CHAK-AT
pB1: 0-*16-WINIK-ji-ya
pA2: i-u-ti
pB2: 4-AJAW
pA3: 8-HUL?-OHL-la
pB3: yi-IL-la-ji-ya
pA4: YAX-ko-jo
pB4: a-AHK
pB5: 9-HA’B-ya i-u-ti

Summary of Dates:
[ 9 Ahaw] 8 Zip
[] 4 Ahaw 8 Kumk’u
[ 7 Ahaw 3 Pax]


Mayer, Karl Herbert. 1991. Maya Monuments: Sculptures of Unknown Provenance, Supplement 3. Graz: Verlag Von Hemming.

Miller, Mary Ellen, and David S. Stuart. 1981. Dumbarton Oaks Relief Panel 4. Estudios de Cultura Maya, vol XIII, pp. 197-204.

Schele, Linda, David Freidel and Joy Parker. 1993. Maya Cosmos: Three Thousand Years on the Shaman’s Path. New York: William Morrow.

Stuart, David, and George Stuart. 2008. Palenque: Eternal City of the Maya. New York: Thames and Hudson.

Van Stone, Mark. 2010. 2012 Science and Prophecy of the Ancient Maya. Imperial Beach, CA: Tlacaelel Press.

2 thoughts on “Reinterpreting a “Creation” Text from Chancala, Mexico

  1. Alexandre Tokovinine March 30, 2011 / 12:22 AM

    Absolutely agree that there is yi-. My entry about the DO panel (and related Chancala monuments) in the new DO Maya catalog also includes this interpretation.

    It does not completely remove the possibility that a legendary ruler witnessed a deep-time period ending. References of this kind are also known, although not from Chancala. For example, Palenque and Piedras Negras narratives feature deep-time founders.

    That said, the date fits well with the late date on the DO panel and with the idea that Chancala’s rise postdates the demise of Palenque.

    Are there other examples of the three-dot K’UH sign? The Chancala-Cascada fragment seems to have just a normal K’UH, but the other three examples have a distinct sign with three dots instead of an eye. Just an allograph?

  2. Jesús Mora April 8, 2011 / 4:41 AM

    Dr Stuart,

    Very interesting, but = 9 Ahaw 8 Uo, no 8 Zip. Then, the summary of dates must be:

    [ 3 Ahaw] 8 Zip
    +*15.0 (written in error as 18.0)
    [] 4 Ahaw 8 Kumk’u
    + 9.0.0
    [ 7 Ahaw 3 Pax]


    Jesús Mora