How the Maya thought about the ancient ruins in their midst, and the science of Braille

Maya building with podcast overlay
S. Crespi/Science


First up this week, what did people 1000 years ago think about 5000-year-old Stonehenge? Or about a disused Maya temple smack dab in the middle of the neighborhood? Contributing Correspondent Lizzie Wade joins host Sarah Crespi to discuss how Mesoamerican sites are revealing new ways that ruins were incorporated into past peoples’ lives.

Next up on this week’s show is a segment from the AAAS meeting on reading science and Braille. We hear from Robert Englebretson, an associate professor of linguistics at Rice University, about filling in a gap in reading science research when it comes to how Braille is read, written, and learned.

This week’s episode was produced with help from Podigy.

About the Science Podcast



0:00:05.7 Sarah: This is the Science Podcast for March 31st, 2023. I'm Sarah Crespi. First up this week, what did people 1000 years ago, think about 5,000 year old Stonehenge or about a disused Maya temple, smack dab in the middle of the neighborhood. Contributing correspondent Lizzie Wade joins me to discuss how Mesoamerica sites are revealing new ways that ruins were incorporated into past people's lives. Next up a segment from the AAAS meeting on Reading Science and Braille. We hear from Robert Englebretson, an Associate Professor of Linguistics at Rice University, about filling in a gap in reading science research when it comes to how Braille is read, written and learned.

0:00:53.4 Sarah: After a long time away writing a book and other things, contributing news correspondent Lizzie Wade is back. She's here with a story and what happens to ruins after their ruination. Hi Lizzie.

0:01:05.3 Lizzie: Hi Sarah.

0:01:06.4 Sarah: So we're gonna focus on Maya ruins today, but I'm sure this is true in many other places, people still interacted with the leftovers, the remains of boulder societies when the original builders were gone.

0:01:18.8 Lizzie: Yeah. A lot of ruins and monuments in other places in the world have been considered through this lens before. Like Stonehenge, for example, has been there for 5,000 years and people who lived around it and visited it had different reactions and relationships to it over those 5,000 years. Most of those people were not the original builders of it, and historians and archeologists have been aware of that and studied that in various ways for a long time. But when it comes to Mesoamerica, it's not like no one has ever thought about it before. But...

0:01:50.7 Sarah: Yeah.

0:01:52.2 Lizzie: The idea that past people had their own past was not really something that archeologists historically have considered in the Americas because of the prize colonialism.

0:02:02.0 Sarah: Oh no.


0:02:06.5 Lizzie: So archeology for a long time, part of its project was to disconnect indigenous people from their own past and sort of say, "Oh, indigenous people are not capable of building this great city, it had to be some other "race" of people who lived here before.

0:02:23.4 Sarah: Or ancient aliens.

0:02:24.7 Lizzie: Or an ancient aliens. You know, [laughter], I'm not sure in the 19th century they were really thinking about ancient aliens, but that's definitely part of it now. They were constantly looking for other explanations for indigenous history that weren't the obvious answer, which is that the ancestors of indigenous people built these places and had relationships with them for many, many hundreds or thousands of years. So part of this work now is trying to be more honest about that and understand how people in the past in Mesoamerica related to science of their own past. And using that as a way to question the Western perspective archeology and archeologists can bring to their study of the past if they're not quite aware of it and careful about it.

0:03:10.3 Sarah: I think the Stonehenge was a really good starting point. You know, it's still there, it's easy to see. And 5,000 years of people being like, I wonder what that's for is not that surprising or maybe people a thousand years ago had a very strong idea about it. But when we're talking about the ruins that are featured in the work that you discuss in the story, a lot of them were... I guess they're... Some of them were buried under like more recent and then more recent and then more recent things. But that other ones just stayed exactly where they were and people lived nearby a ruin. And they had different ideas about what that was for.

0:03:45.0 Lizzie: Yeah. A lot of places, as in any place in the world as cities and settlements in Mesoamerica got bigger and smaller over time. Like many places, the same place, and some cities and people eventually moved away from, and the ruins of that city stayed where they were, but people still knew it was there and remembered it. Sometimes these are older pyramids or temples in a city or settlement in the middle of things that for whatever reason aren't being maintained anymore the way that they used to be. But people still noticed it, people still remembered it and people still interacted with these things in all sorts of ways.

0:04:20.4 Sarah: Yeah. Let's talk about some of the examples here. What are some of the ways that people paid attention to ruins that were in the same town as them, but no longer serve their original purpose?

0:04:29.0 Lizzie: One of the most interesting things that this engagement with ruins can reveal in the past is how people were thinking about their own history and often manipulating that history for a parallel today, think about the debates over who we have monuments to in our public places. And sometimes new monuments go up, new public figures are venerated, past ones are no longer. We no longer want monuments to them and so we take them down, maybe we put them in a museum, another place. All of that engagement with history, what's happening in the past as well. So in a settlement called Rio Viejo, which is in Oaxaca, they're around 500 CE. This new government comes up in Rio Viejo and they're like, "Yes, we're gonna have hierarchy and we're gonna be rich and we're gonna rule everyone else".

0:05:20.5 Lizzie: And this hadn't really happened for a while in Rio Viejo, but it had happened in the past and there was this big complex of temple buildings just like sitting in the middle of this community that the last government had built. And then that government had collapsed and this thing was in ruin. And everyone had just lived around it for like 250 years. When these new rulers decided to try to reinstate some kind of political and economic hierarchy in this town, they were confronted with the power of this past, of this ruin that was an implicit question to why they would exist at all or how long that they could possibly last. And so what they did was try to reanimate the space with like offerings and maybe some sacrifices. And they placed portraits of different rulers right on top of this ruin. They just put their pictures on it, essentially. [laughter] And sort of tried to appropriate it that way.

0:06:17.1 Sarah: Yeah.

0:06:18.1 Lizzie: But they didn't really like remodel it or reoccupy it. They repaired the worst damage and kind of put their pictures on it, but they didn't start living in it or anything. So I think that was a really interesting way that you can see how they were worried about what this symbol meant and how they could use it for their own purposes.

0:06:35.1 Sarah: Why didn't they just get rid of it?

0:06:36.6 Lizzie: That's a really good question. I wish I could ask them.


0:06:40.5 Lizzie: But part of the reason that ruins hang around is that there's not enough people living in the place anymore to get rid of it. If you've lost leadership in a community, like there's really no one to organize that labor.

0:06:56.2 Sarah: It's costly, right?

0:06:57.5 Lizzie: Yeah. It's really costly on time and resources and material. And if, for example, an elite government has collapsed, people are leaving the city, there's just like not that many people around to do that stuff anymore. And it's probably not really anyone's priority in someplace like Rio Viejo. And in some places that were being... That people were gradually moving out of, it just wasn't something that they had time or the resources to do. So these things just kind of stuck around.

0:07:20.2 Sarah: Yeah. Is there some other examples in your story? Can you talk about one more for us?

0:07:25.7 Lizzie: Sure. So Rio Viejo has elite rulers reappropriating a ruin. And then other places the people who interact with these ruins the most are commoners, which is also really interesting because often these ruins are quite fancy spaces that are like no longer being used for their original purposes and by the people who would have lived in them before. In the city, the Maya city of Waka in Guatemala, there's a temple pyramid that goes through many phases of remodeling and older history, it's kind of constantly incorporated and reincorporated into this building in really interesting ways through like royal tombs and repositioning of statues and things. But eventually Waka, like a lot of Maya cities around this time starts to fall apart and the royal family loses power and probably leaves, lots of other people start to leave.

0:08:14.6 Lizzie: And at this time, archeologists find offerings of pretty normal everyday objects like pottery that normal people would use at home, or stone tools are left in offerings around this temple staircase at this time when the city is being abandoned. The building is no longer really being fixed up or maintained. But you know, obviously for the people in this community, this place really meant something to them and it meant something about their community and it meant something about their identity and they wanted to stay connected to it, even if the same ceremonies weren't happening in this place. They wanted to leave a part of themselves in this building that was falling into ruin, and I think that that's also really interesting.

0:08:54.5 Sarah: What about today, the people who have inherited this land, this culture, the people who live there, how do they interact with these monuments as ruins or as part of their history?

0:09:06.9 Lizzie: Maya, people today, especially lots of my communities still leave offerings in places that we would say are archeological sites, that has not always been allowed, or in some places that's still not allowed unfortunately. But these practices and connections have survived for a long time, for example, in the site of Yaxchilan, which is on the Mexico, Guatemalan border. Lacandon Maya communities would make pilgrimages there for centuries and leave offerings in Yaxchilan, which they considered to be the home of one of their most important gods. And unfortunately a lot of Mayan communities still do this, but unfortunately those pilgrimages were stopped when archeologists and tourists started coming more intensively to Yaxchilan. And practices like burning incense were prohibited. And some archeologists are trying to help reconstruct those pilgrimage roots.

0:10:00.8 Lizzie: Now for lots of Mayan communities that still live around these sites, they're considered to be very much alive and not empty in the way that we would see them as tourists who visit... You know, western tourists who visit their homes to forest spirits or homes to ancestors or homes to gods in a very literal way. They're like living active members of their communities. And I think archeologists are working hard to try to respect those connections and to understand their importance.

0:10:33.2 Sarah: And this is why some people don't wanna call them ruins anymore?

0:10:36.9 Lizzie: Yeah. I talked to one anthropologist who's Yucatec Maya, and he likes this idea of trying to respect and understand how communities engage with these older places over time. But he doesn't really like the word ruins for them because it sort of implies something that's dead, that's over, fits in with this like lost city idea of a lot of western archeology and Mesoamerica, which was part of that history of not seeing these things of places that were connected to living communities. It implies an ending in some way and the whole point of how Maya communities relate to them and the point of these studies is that the meaning of these places never really ends. It always is changing.

0:11:15.8 Sarah: Thank you so much Lizzie.

0:11:18.3 Lizzie: Thanks Sarah.

0:11:19.7 Sarah: Lizzie Wade is a contributing correspondent for Science. You can find a link to the story we discussed at Up next we hear from Robert Englebretson about the intricacies of reading Braille.


0:11:40.4 Sarah: I attended a panel at this year's AAAS Annual Meeting on Braille and the Reading Sciences, and I encountered so many interesting ideas I wanted to dig into. Why Braille is still vital in a time of screen readers and audiobooks, that the science of reading the printed word can learn from the science of Braille and vice versa. And how the way Braille is taught or even designed might need to be improved. Robert Englebretson was on the panel and is here to discuss these topics with us. Hi Robert.

0:12:08.3 Robert: Hi Sarah. Thank you so much for having me. It's great to be here.

0:12:11.4 Sarah: Oh sure. It was definitely the highlight of my AAAS Annual Meeting this week. There's a lot here and there were two other people on the panel we should mention and I really hope there's a recording that folks can check out at a later date. But for now, let's get into some of these things I've touched on. First of all, why is Braille so important in this day and age? What do your computer voices and audiobooks cause a user to miss if they're not able to also read if they would like.

0:12:34.8 Robert: Braille is a writing system that enables people who are blind and visually impaired to read, actually read, have direct access with literacy, with punctuation, with spelling, with the formatting of text to be able to read in our own voice and at our own pace. Also, to be able to write and to be able to read what we've written. So much of my work as a professor, I give lectures, I give talks, I teach classes and without being able to read my own notes, it would be a very different approach to teaching. So Braille offers direct access to literacy, just like print offers direct access to literacy for people who are sighted.

0:13:11.8 Sarah: Yeah. I definitely don't wanna be listening to audiobooks every time I'm reading print or a screen reader when I'm using a computer. There's just something to be said for the way print goes right into the brain. It's just such a different feeling than being read to.

0:13:25.6 Robert: Yeah, and it's the same for braille readers, although it's from the fingers into the brain. I would say screen readers and audiobooks are fantastic tools for accessing information and I use them all the time, but they can't replace direct access to literacy just in the same way that they don't for print readers. So, I've heard people say, "Well, isn't Braille obsolete? Blind people still read Braille?" And yes, it is not obsolete. Braille is still very widely used and very important and will continue to be just as long as print is not obsolete for sighted people, I haven't heard... Well I've heard people, but I don't think anyone seriously has said we should replace print completely with audiobooks and text to speech. And I don't really understand why people would make those kinds of claims about Braille because if it's good enough, if it's not good enough for print readers, then it's also not good enough for braille readers.

0:14:18.1 Sarah: Exactly. So at your presentation we got a little mini primer on Braille and I was really struck by how orderly this is. For each character it's an array. These dots are an array and each position in the array has a number, and the array is a character or a symbol that can stand for a letter in the alphabet.

0:14:37.7 Robert: Sure. Braille is a writing system. So a writing system is a non-ephemeral, non-auditory means of representing a spoken language. And the two basic parts of any writing system are the script and the orthography. The script is the set of symbols that are used to represent the language. So like the Latin alphabet, the Cyrillic alphabet, traditional Chinese characters, Japanese kanji and so on. Whereas the orthography is how the symbols of the script are arranged, how they form words. In English we can think of orthography as spelling, and Braille has two orthographies, English Braille has two orthographies. Now I should also mention that at least 150 of the world's languages have Braille systems. So you can represent many, many languages in Braille. You can use Braille to represent music notation. You can use Braille in stem fields and in basically any area that print is useful. But in terms of the orthography in English Braille, we have two orthographies.

0:15:40.1 Robert: So there's uncontracted Braille, which is basically a transliteration of print, where you take the letters of the Braille alphabet, the tactile symbols and use them one for one to represent the print letters. That's uncontracted Braille. Contracted Braille uses symbols from the Braille script to represent groups of letters or even whole words, I should say that contracted Braille is kind of the default orthography. If you are Braille literate, if you want to be literate in Braille, if you want to read most of the materials that comes out of blindness organizations or Braille publishing houses, you'd need to read contracted Braille. It's also the grade of Braille that's used on ADA signage and buildings and so on. Contracted Braille came about essentially as a means of saving time and space. It may enable what reading scientists call the direct route to orthography. So direct mapping from form to meaning more easily than does completely uncontracted Braille.

0:16:39.3 Sarah: Interesting. You gave a couple of examples in your talk. One of them is the word "The" might be an example of something you wanna just get through real quickly, just one symbol for that. But then also groups of letters are contracted as well and that's kind of where your research lies. Can you talk a little bit about the questions you were asking about how these contractions are read by people encountering Braille?

0:17:00.2 Robert: Well, the symbol, "the", that you've mentioned, it is the symbol for the letters T-H-E. So you'd use it in "the", as a word you'd use it in "then", you'd use it in "therapy", you'd use it anywhere that print uses the sequence, T-H-E.

0:17:16.6 Sarah: There are other groupings like S-T and...

0:17:19.4 Robert: E-D.

0:17:20.6 Sarah: E-D, exactly. [laughter] Those can actually cross these boundaries that we're used to respecting with the way we chunk sounds, which I thought was really interesting, 'cause my daughter is an 8-year-old and she's learning sound chunks when she's learning to read.

0:17:36.2 Robert: What you're talking about. When you're talking about sound chunks are what we call morphemes, and a morpheme is a basic pairing between form and meaning. So in English we have have stems, we have suffixes, we have prefixes. And what morphology does in reading is it allows kind of automatic mapping across words of the same form to the same meaning. So if you see the stem cat in cats and bobcat and wildcat, you recognize that that is the same form that represents relatively the same meaning. Maybe the meeting's modified a little bit in a word like...

0:18:18.5 Sarah: Category.

0:18:20.4 Robert: Category. Well no, that's gonna get us way into the leads of false...

0:18:23.8 Sarah: Just a bunch of cats.

0:18:25.8 Robert: Category, I guess a category could be a bunch of cats, but dogegories don't exist so we're not gonna go there. A very crucial part of reading is this morphological awareness mapping from form to meaning. And the tricky part about contracted Braille orthography is that it often doesn't allow the recognition of these forms in the same way that print orthography does. So one of my favorite examples in the talk is the word redraw, which consists of the prefix R-E which among other things means to do again. So the prefix re and the stem draw. Now in Braille, in current what we call unified English Braille, which is the official system of Braille used in the United States and Canada and Britain and Australia and most of the English speaking world, the E-D contraction is required to be used in a word like redraw.

0:19:23.4 Robert: So what it looks like, and when we say the E-D contraction, it is a symbol, a unique symbol. There's nothing in this form that means either E or D that you could maybe, I don't know in your mind as a print reader substitute like a dollar sign or something for it to make the point that it doesn't contain those letters. It's its own unique symbol. So what happens when a contraction bridges the boundary between a prefix and a stem, or between a stem and a suffix, is that you can't immediately recognize either the prefix in this case re or the stem in this case draw.

0:20:01.6 Sarah: So I'll be reading along instead of... And then instead of getting to R-E and then D-R-A-W, redraw, I get to r contraction symbol R-A-W. So kind of like red-raw or you kind of have to decide, you're not able to easily see that it's re at the beginning. So the contraction basically hides the prefix and the stem.

0:20:25.6 Robert: So there's a great amount of literature of studies of work in the reading sciences that have shown the importance of morphological awareness and morphology for print readers. But there has until recently not been anything that examines this in braille readers. So my colleagues and I have done two studies so far that take a look at this. In 2016, my colleague and co-author Simon Fischer Baum and I published an article in cognition that looked at this question for proficient adult readers of Braille. And we did a reaction time study where we had people reacting to sequences of letters that they read on a Braille display. And what they had to do for this experiment was as quickly as possible say whether the sequence that they're reading is a word or not a word. And what we found is when people read words like redraw, where the contraction obscured the morphemes, where it made it impossible to tell the prefix and the stem, they were slower and they made more errors than when they were recognizing words like repay, which have essentially the same morphology, but where there is no Braille contraction E-P.

0:21:39.4 Robert: So both word parts are easily observable. So the presence of bridging contractions, contractions that obscure morpheme boundaries cause proficient adult braille readers to be slower and to have a higher error rate when they read those kinds of words than they do when reading words that have apparent morphology. The second study that we recently did, which is currently in the publication process, was looking at how this works in the writing of young Braille learners. So we are fortunate to have access to a large body of data from an annual contest put on by the Braille Institute of America called the Braille Challenge. And the Braille Challenge is a contest to promote the academic use of Braille for braille readers in grades 1-12. And it consists of various things such as spelling tests and writing Braille from dictation and reading comprehension, all of those kinds of things.

0:22:37.7 Robert: So we looked at four years of the spelling contests, which are children in grades 1-4. What we found is that children in grades 1-4 made more Braille errors. So they used Braille incorrectly when they were writing words where a contraction is supposed to bridge a morpheme boundary, so they would make more errors writing words like mistake or mistook where miss and took are bridged with the S-T contraction. Then they were when writing words like crystal or castle where the S-T contraction is in the middle of a stem and doesn't bridge anything. So both of those tell us that morphology matters. Just like morphology matters for print readers, morphology also matters for braille readers. And these kinds of bridging contractions that obscure the easy recognition of prefixes, stems and suffixes cause proficient adult braille readers to take slightly longer and make more errors when reading words and they cause young Braille learners to make more errors when writing words.

0:23:46.5 Sarah: What do you take away from this? Does this mean that Braille should change or how we teach Braille should change? Or what do you see as the next steps for this?

0:23:57.7 Robert: These are really the first studies that have taken a look at this and have said, "Well does morphology matter to braille readers in the same way it matters to print readers? And what is this situation in Braille where contractions wreck the morphological structure of English words, does this matter?"

0:24:12.0 Sarah: Right, which one is gonna win, right? Like you would not know when you're going into it.

0:24:16.2 Robert: Yeah exactly. Which one wins is the morphology.

0:24:19.7 Sarah: Right.

0:24:20.9 Robert: The unconscious knowledge of language that we have usually takes precedence over rules of how you're supposed to write things.

0:24:29.4 Sarah: So what do you take away from your results here with adults and children looking at this conflict between contractions and morphemes?

0:24:36.8 Robert: Well, there's two things I take away. First of all is fantastically important to recognize that the unconscious structures of language like morphemes that we all unconsciously know about as speakers or even learners of a language matter for braille readers in the same way that they matter for print readers. The second takeaway is, yeah, I do think that there need to be changes of how contractions work in these particular cases. And I don't know how that's necessarily going to happen, but it is certainly something that I think will gradually end up happening over time. And in terms of teaching, you and I haven't gotten into the issue of how Braille teachers who are usually sighted people who have learned Braille in a very specific way, how they conceptualize Braille as a code for print rather than as a writing system.

0:25:24.8 Sarah: Yeah.

0:25:26.1 Robert: So there's a whole lot of things that need to happen in the way that most Braille teachers think about Braille and think about what it is that they're doing. Braille teachers should be thinking that they're teaching children to read through Braille. But in part of our ongoing research grant, we did a survey and we have about a hundred responses so far from Braille teachers, we're aiming to get a lot more. But one of the things that we find is that well over half of teachers of Braille answered that they don't know whether braille readers are decoding into print spelling when they're reading and we're not, right. Our studies pretty much show that that's not the case. The way that we read and write Braille is not as a code for print, but rather as a... In this case, code for English. Right? It's parallel to print, it's equal to print, it's not dependent on print the way that people read and write Braille.

0:26:21.0 Sarah: Thank you so much, Robert.

0:26:22.5 Robert: Well, thank you Sarah. It was great to be here and I always like talking about Braille.

0:26:25.8 Sarah: Okay. Robert Englebretson is an Associate Professor of Linguistics at Rice University. You can find a link to the description of this panel at


0:26:37.8 Sarah: And that concludes this edition of The Science Podcast. If you have any comments or suggestions, write to us at [email protected] You can listen to the show on the Science website, or search for Science magazine on any podcasting app. This show was edited by me, Sarah Crespi and Kevin McClain with production help from Prodigy. Jeffrey Cook composed the music on behalf of Science and its publisher AAAS. Thanks for joining us.