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Michael Coe, Maya scholar and codebreaker, is dead at 90
Michael Coe at the Grolier Club when the so-called Grolier Codex was exhibited in Manhattan, 1971. Coe, a Yale anthropologist who devoted his career to proving that the ancient Maya incubated an elaborate written language that had previously been undervalued by many scholars, died on Sept. 25, 2019, in a hospital in New Haven. He was 90. (Paul Hosefros/The New York Times)

by Sam Roberts

NEW YORK, NY (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Michael D. Coe, a Yale anthropologist who devoted his career to proving that the ancient Maya incubated an elaborate written language that had previously been undervalued by many scholars, died on Sept 25 in a hospital in New Haven, Connecticut. He was 90.

The cause was a stroke, his son Andrew said.

Coe was instrumental in deciphering the Maya script and in translating and validating the authenticity of what became known as the Grolier Codex — a document found in a Mexican cave that was believed to have been written around the 13th century on fig bark. It is now considered the earliest existing manuscript in the Americas.

First exhibited at the Grolier Club in Manhattan in 1971, it is one of only four written Maya works known to have survived marauding Spanish conquistadors and purges by Roman Catholic priests.

Coe defied contemporary critics who believed that the Maya hieroglyphics had been randomly inscribed and did not represent a recorded language. Instead, he embraced a discovery by the Soviet scholar Yuri Knorozov, who deciphered phonetic syllables in the Maya writing system, which allowed the texts to be read and spoken in their original language as well as translated.

Coe spent much of his career exploring the written language, paintings and origins of societies that flourished in Mexico and Central America before the Spanish arrived in the early 16th century. He wrote of their invasion, “No imperial conquest has ever been so total, or a great people so shattered.”

But, in “Breaking the Maya Code” (1992), he theorized that anthropologists had never given the Maya adequate credit for their linguistic advances because of what he called “quasi-racism,” or an “unwillingness to grant the brown-skinned Maya a culture as complex as that of Europe, China or the Near East.”

Coe mined classical texts, probed dig sites with modern technological tools and popularized the emerging field of ecological archaeology, which studies how ancient civilizations related to their environment.

He was also regarded as a champion of the Olmec civilization, which predated the Maya by about 2,100 years. He found and salvaged many of the Olmec’s enormous basalt sculptures of human heads and argued that the Olmecs were the “mother culture” of Mesoamerica.

“He was always willing to take unpopular positions and prove them correct,” said Richard A. Diehl, professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of Alabama, who was a graduate student when he began working with Coe in 1966.

Reviewing “The Art of the Maya Scribe” (1997), which Coe wrote with Justin Kerr, Souren Melikian said in The International Herald Tribune, “The moment you open the book, you feel you have been handed keys to hitherto impenetrable secrets.”

Coe’s other books included “Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs” (1962), “The Maya” (1966), “The Maya Scribe and His World” (1973) and a memoir, “Final Report: An Archaeologist Excavates His Past” (2006). His book “Breaking the Maya Code” inspired a 2008 documentary.

After his wife, Sophie D. Coe, an anthropologist and food historian, died of cancer in 1994, Coe fulfilled his promise to finish her book “The True History of Chocolate.” It was published in 1996.

Michael Douglas Coe was born on May 14, 1929, in Manhattan and was raised on Planting Fields, a 400-acre estate in Oyster Bay, on Long Island; it is now a state park. His father, William Rogers Coe, was vice president of the Virginian Railroad and a grandson of Henry Huttleston Rogers, a founder of Standard Oil. His mother, Clover (Simonton) Coe, was a dress designer.

Michael originally hoped to become a writer. But at St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire, as a prize for his religious studies work, he won a copy of “The Book of a Thousand Tongues,” which translated the gospel of St. Mark into multiple languages. The book propelled him toward the study of anthropology.

“It hooked me from the beginning,” he said in a memoir.

After graduating from St. Paul’s, he enrolled at Harvard, where, he later said, he couldn’t find a relevant creative writing course. Then, while on a family vacation to the Yucatán, he toured the ancient Maya ruins at Chichen Itza and was mesmerized by the mysterious wall paintings and hieroglyphs he found there. When he returned to college, he switched his major from English literature to anthropology. He graduated in 1950.

A Harvard anthropology professor soon recruited him to the front lines of the Cold War. He went to work for a business organization in Taiwan that was actually a front for the Central Intelligence Agency, which was trying to subvert the nascent Communist regime in Beijing.

He later led an excavation in Guatemala and another in Veracruz, Mexico, and completed his doctorate in anthropology at Harvard in 1959.

He married Sophie Dobzhansky, a Radcliffe anthropology student and the daughter of the Russian émigré geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky, in 1955. In addition to their son Andrew, also a food historian, he is survived by two other sons, Nicholas and Peter; two daughters, Sarah and Natalie Coe; and six grandchildren. His brother was the archaeologist William R. Coe II, from whom he was estranged for decades and who died in 2009.

Coe joined the Yale faculty in 1960 and became the Charles J. MacCurdy professor of anthropology emeritus in 1995. He was curator emeritus of the anthropology collection at Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History, where he had been curator from 1968 to 1994.

“We know much of what we do about ancient beliefs in the New World because of his insights and compilations of evidence,” Stephen D. Houston, chairman of the anthropology department at Brown University, said by email. “He was also peerless as a popularizer,” Houston said, because he wrote with “great verve and clarity.”

While he was best known for his work in the Americas, Coe also conducted comparative studies of ancient tropical forest societies, including the Khmer civilization in Cambodia, which he researched when he was in Taiwan.

In a 1978 essay, he presented a cautionary tale of what an archaeologist might erroneously conclude thousands of years in the future about the origins, chronology and architecture of the three churches on the historic New Haven Green, based only on an examination of their remains. He suggested that those hypothetical findings ought to humble his contemporaries who overconfidently draw conclusions about ancient civilizations.

“I notice that archaeologists who come up with neat models for prehistoric cultural events seem to feel that they are presenting us with some sort of reality,” he wrote. “It is lucky for these scholars that the long-dead subjects of their study cannot now contradict them.”

© 2019 The New York Times Company

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