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Erik Boot . . . creator of Itza Maya dictionary . . . passes away after long illness

Erik Boot . . . creator of Itza Maya dictionary . . . passes away after long illness



erikbootMost of you probably have never heard of Erik Boot.  He was a Dutch anthropologist, who created the Itza Maya Dictionary.  Until the dictionary’s publication, most academicians assumed that Itza was pretty much the same as the Maya dialects spoken in major Maya cities during the Classical Period of Mesoamerica (200 AD – 900 AD).  However, the Itzas originally spoke another language . . . possibly from Peru and then were under the domination of the Totonacs for about 600 years.  Despite being in close cultural interaction with ethnic Mayas from 600 AD till the present era,  today’s Itza language shows significant connections to Totonac PLUS  Miccosukee and Itsate (Hitchiti) Creek.  In fact, most of the Creeks in Georgia, SE Tennessee and western North Carolina called themselves Itsate (Itza People) which is what the Itzas called themselves.

Absolutely . . . It was Erik Boot’s pioneering linguistic research that made possible almost all of POOF’s research that connects the Itza Mayas with the Southeastern United States.

I first made contact with Erik a little over ten years ago.   I had just discovered that the Georgia Creek, Totonac and Itza Maya words for house were all chiki.  I began digging further and discovered many words in Totonac or modern Itza that were the same in Itsate (Hitchiti) Creek.  However, I couldn’t understand why the Creek language drew so many words from both Totonac and Itza.  Since the Totonacs were in northern Vera Cruz State and the Itzas were several hundred miles away in the highlands of Chiapas State and Guatemala, it would seem logical that the main Mesoamerican influence on the Creek languages would be either the Totonacs or the Itzas, but not both.  Totonac and “Mainstream” Maya are very different languages.

Dr. Boot seemed very appreciative that I shared his intellectual curiosity and went out of his way to help a stranger on the other side of the Atlantic.  He knew nothing about the Creek Indians and was shocked that a tribe in the United States could have spoken Itza words.  He “fact-checked” me for a couple of emails then became totally convinced, when I sent him photocopies of some pages in a Miccosukee dictionary.

Erik explained to me that the Itzas originally spoke an entirely different language that was not related to Maya.  He was convinced that the original elite at Itzapa, spoke that language . . . as did the elite at El Mirador, another Pre-Classic Maya city.   At that time, he still had not been able to figure out what that language was.  Perhaps it was from Peru.  During the many centuries that the Itzas were under the domination of Totonac-speaking lords from Teotihuacan and then the Mayas,  the Itza priests continued to use the ancient, aboriginal Itza language, because their overlords could not understand it.   Meanwhile, the commoners absorbed many Totonac words into their daily language.

After Classic Maya civilization collapsed, the Itzas soon became the “Big Shots.”  Between 900 AD and 1600 AD the Itza language absorbed many Maya words.  However, the Itzas probably came to the Southeast between 800 AD and 1050 AD.  The shared words between Itza and Creek reflect the form of Itza spoken during that period, which was far less like Maya.  Think how much English has changed since 1050 AD.  Most of you probably can understand very little Old English.  The only reason I can read much of Beowulf is because of being exposed to Swedish and Danish.

There are so many people like Erik Boot, who thought outside the box and made major contributions to the understanding of the past . . . yet will be forgotten in a generation.   At least, we will have his memory preserved here on the People of One Fire.




Here is Dr. Boot’s obituary that recently appeared in an online professional publication:

Our dear friend and anthropologist Dr. Erik Boot passed away on December 17, 2016. Erik earned a Ph.D. (2005) from the University of Leiden, the Netherlands and was a great contributor to the European Maya Meetings and a prolific Maya scholar, whose work ‘Continuity and Change in Text and Image at Chichen Itza, Yucatan, Mexico’ remains one of the most in-depth and up to date studies of the inscriptions, iconography and architecture of the site. Erik also published innumerable, prodigiously sourced articles on Maya archaeology, epigraphy, art and mythology through the years (sometimes at the rate of 2-3 articles a month). Some of Erik’s most recent research projects (as quoted on included:

The Classic Maya Hieroglyphic Vocabulary Database (initiated in 1998; first results online in 2002 at Mesoweb, followed by an update in 2009 also at Mesoweb, and the start of Maya Glyph Blog in 2010; further updates and new website in 2015-16), and Regional Variation in the (Standard) Dedicatory Formula on Maya Ceramics (initiated in 2005; first results served as background to workshop hosted at the 10th EMC in Leiden [2005], the Netherlands, further results forthcoming; preliminary results also posted at Maya Glyph Blog, and in Boot 2014 [Berlin 2010 paper])

Among the papers he recently presented (also quoted from

2013 Three New Writing Systems: On the Origin(s), Evolution, and Distribution of Scripts in Ancient Mesoamerica (lecture, October 30, 2014, Brussels, Free University of Brussels, Wayeb)
2013 A Last Solitary Maya Stand, or First Step of “Pan-Maya” Societal Resilience? The Stelae Program at Seibal, ca. A.D. 840-870 (symposium, 18th EMC, Brussels, November 1-2, 2013, Free University of Brussels, Wayeb)
2014 Embellished, Beyond Recognition, or From the Pseu-Pseu-Pseudio? Maya Glyphs from the Heartland, “Maya” Glyphs on the Fringes (Symposium, “The Idea of Writing: Beyond Speech?”, Leiden, October 24-25, 2014, Leiden University, NINO, LIAS)

2014 Marking System, Pictograms, Incipient Writing, or Something Else: On the Graphic Enhancement of Preclassic to Late Classic Figurines from Central Mexico and Veracruz (Symposium, “The Idea of Writing: Beyond Speech?”, Leiden, October 24-25, 2014, Leiden University, NINO, LIAS)

I am amazed of the papers Erik wrote and the databases he updated these past six months, during his intense battle with a terminal illness. One of the final papers Erik published can be found in the PARI Journal 16(3):12-18 2016 and titled: A Classic Maya Plate in the Collection of the De Young Museum, San Francisco: An Analysis of Text, Image, and “Kill Hole”. Despite his failing condition, Erik graciously shared with me via letter added insights into the plate’s amphibian imagery and inscription, that immediately led to new insights into the Maize God resurrection story. For Erik, not even impending death was allowed to get in the way of a new decipherment! 

Erik Boot was and will remain a great inspiration to those who worked and studied with him, and his contribution to the field of Maya art, mythology and epigraphy has helped us see further into the scribal mind of of the ancient Maya. His dedicated scholarship, humor, friendship and wit will be greatly missed.

Carl D. Callaway

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Richard Thornton is a professional architect, city planner, author and museum exhibit designer-builder. He is today considered one of the nation’s leading experts on the Southeastern Indians. However, that was not always the case. While at Georgia Tech Richard was the first winner of the Barrett Fellowship, which enabled him to study Mesoamerican architecture and culture in Mexico under the auspices of the Institutio Nacional de Antropoligia e Historia. Dr. Roman Piňa-Chan, the famous archaeologist and director of the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, was his fellowship coordinator. For decades afterward, he lectured at universities and professional societies around the Southeast on Mesoamerican architecture, while knowing very little about his own Creek heritage. Then he was hired to carry out projects for the Muscogee-Creek Nation in Oklahoma. The rest is history. Richard is the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the KVWETV (Coweta) Creek Tribe and a member of the Perdido Bay Creek Tribe. In 2009 he was the architect for Oklahoma’s Trail of Tears Memorial at Council Oak Park in Tulsa. He is the president of the Apalache Foundation, which is sponsoring research into the advanced indigenous societies of the Lower Southeast.

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