Michael D. Coe

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For the football player, see Michael Coe (American football).
Michael D. Coe
Born Michael Douglas Coe
1929 (age 85–86)
Fields anthropology, archaeology, epigraphy
Known for Maya civilization

Michael D. Coe (born 1929) is an American archaeologist, anthropologist, epigrapher and author. Primarily known for his research in the field of pre-Columbian Mesoamerican studies (and in particular, for his work on the Maya civilization, where he is regarded as one of the foremost Mayanist scholars[1] of the latter 20th century), Coe has also made extensive investigations across a variety of other archaeological sites in North and South America. He has also specialised in comparative studies of ancient tropical forest civilizations, such as those of Central America and Southeast Asia. He currently (as of 2005) holds the chair of Charles J. MacCurdy Professor of Anthropology, Emeritus, Yale University, and is Curator Emeritus of the Anthropology collection in the Peabody Museum of Natural History, where he had been Curator from 1968 to 1994.[2]

During the Korean War, Coe worked for the CIA as a part of the front organization Western Enterprises in Taiwan created to subvert Mao's China.[3]

With over four decades of active research experience, Coe is a prolific author of scientific papers across a broad range of archaeological, anthropological and ethnohistorical topics. He has also authored a number of popular works for the non-specialist audience, several of which have been best-selling and much reprinted, such as The Maya (1966) and Breaking the Maya Code (1992). He also co-authored the book Mexico: From the Olmecs to the Aztecs (1962, sixth edition, 2008) with Rex Koontz.

Coe attended Fay School[4] in Southborough, Massachusetts and later graduated from Harvard College in 1950 and received his PhD in anthropology from the Harvard Graduate School of Arts & Sciences in 1959. Shortly after commencing his graduate studies program there, in 1955 he married the daughter of the noted evolutionary biologist and Russian émigré Theodosius Dobzhansky, Sophie, who was then an undergraduate anthropology student at Radcliffe College.[5] Sophie translated from Russian, the work of epigrapher, Yuri Valentinovich Knorosov, "The Writing of the Maya Indians" (1967).[6] Knorosov based his studies on De Landa's phonetic alphabet and is credited with originally breaking the Maya code.

Highlights of accomplishments[edit]

Coe is considered, by most scholars of Mesoamerica and the Maya, to have done foundational work in three areas: 1) achieved in his Harvard dissertation, establishing the first secure chronology of ceramics for southern Mesoamerica and which has served, almost without revision, to anchor chronologies elsewhere in the Maya world; 2) greatly expanding knowledge of the Olmec civilization, with his work at San Lorenzo (with Richard Diehl); 3) directly teaching and guiding several of the Maya epigraphers and iconographers who have been central to the deeper understanding of Maya hieroglyphic writing and Maya ideology. In general, by consensus he is regarded as the greatest Mesoamericanist of his generation.


Recently, some of Coe's work has come under scrutiny by two scholars of Pre-Columbian art. His work on, for example, the Cascajal Block[7] and on the The Wrestler (sculpture),[8] has been called into question. Other scholars, perhaps the majority, dispute these claims and find them inadequately supported by evidence. The Cascajal block in particular is argued to have many features fully consistent with Olmec imagery,[9][10] and the same has been said for the Wrestler.[11][12][13]

Awards and recognition[edit]

During the course of his lengthy scientific career, Coe has been the recipient of a number of awards in recognition of his substantial contributions to the fields of archaeology and anthropology. These include:

Major publications[edit]

  • Coe, Michael D. (1961) La Victoria, An Early Site on the Coast of Guatemala. Papers vol. 53. Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, Cambridge.
  • Coe, Michael D. (1966) The Maya. Thames and Hudson, New York. (8th ed. 2011)
  • Coe, Michael D. (1973) The Maya Scribe and His World. The Grolier Club, New York.
  • Coe, Michael D. (1992) Breaking the Maya Code. Thames and Hudson, New York. (revised ed. 1999)
  • Coe, Michael D. (1995) The Olmec World: Ritual and Rulership. The Art Museum, Princeton University, Princeton.
  • Coe, Michael D. (2003) Angkor and the Khmer Civilization. Thames and Hudson, New York.
  • Coe, Michael D. and Richard A. Diehl (1980) In the Land of the Olmec. 2 vols. University of Texas Press, Austin.
  • Coe, Michael D. and Justin Kerr (1998) The Art of the Maya Scribe. Harry N. Abrams, New York.
  • Coe, Michael D. and Mark Van Stone (2001) Reading the Maya Glyphs (2nd ed. 2005)
  • Coe, Sophie D. and Michael D. Coe (1996) The True History of Chocolate. Thames and Hudson, New York.


  1. ^ Merrin, Edward H. "The Olmec World of Michael Coe". Edward Merrin. Retrieved 11 November 2011. 
  2. ^ Peabody Museum staff (2005).
  3. ^ Coe, Michael D. 2006. Final Report: An Archaeologist Excavates His Past. Thames & Hudseon.
  4. ^ http://www.fayschool.org/ftpimages/486/download/2010_Fay%20Magazine%20Spring%202010%20-%20low%20res.pdf
  5. ^ Coe (1992), p.154.
  6. ^ Stuart and Houston 1989: 15,85; Scarborough 1994: 40
  7. ^ Bruhns, Karen; Kelker, Nancy. "Did the Olmec Know How to Write". www.sciencemag.org. Science Magazine. Retrieved 8 July 2014. 
  8. ^ Kelker, Nancy L. 2004. The Olmec wrestler: Pre-Columbian art or modern fake?. Minerva 15(5):30-31
  9. ^ Freidel, David, and F. Kent Reilly III. 2010. The flesh of God, cosmology, food, and the origins of political power in southeastern Mesoamerica" in Pre-Columbian Foodways: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Food, Culture, and Markets in Mesoamerica edited by John E. Staller and Michael D. Carrasco. pp. 635–680. Springer.
  10. ^ Houston, Stephen D. 2010. http://decipherment.wordpress.com/2010/04/20/dead-bugs-and-olmec-writing/
  11. ^ Milbrath, Susan. 1979). Study of Olmec Sculptural Chronology. Studies in Pre-Columbian Art and Archaeology No. 23. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Trustees for Harvard University.
  12. ^ Coe, Michael D. and Mary Miller. 2004. The Olmec wrestler: a masterpiece of the ancient Gulf Coast Minerva 16(1):18-19
  13. ^ Cyphers, Ann, and Artemio Lopez Cisneros. 2008. La historia de "El Luchador," in Olmeca: Balance y perspectivas, edited by Maria Teresa Uriarte and Rebecca B. Gonzalez Lauck. 411-423.
  14. ^ Museo Popol Vuh (n.d.)


Coe, Michael D. (1992). Breaking the Maya Code. London: Thames & Hudson. ISBN 0-500-05061-9. OCLC 26605966.  Invalid |name-list-format=scap (help)
Museo Popol Vuh staff (n.d.). "Dr. Michael D. Coe - Orden del Pop 2006". Orden del Pop (in Spanish). Guatemala City: Museo Popol Vuh, Universidad Francisco Marroquín. Retrieved 2011-11-11.  Invalid |name-list-format=scap (help)
Peabody Museum of Natural History staff (2005). "Anthropology - Michael D. Coe". The Collections. New Haven, CT: Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale University. Retrieved 2007-02-12.  Invalid |name-list-format=scap (help)


He leads tours for Far Horizons Archaeological and Cultural trips

External links[edit]