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Mesoamerican writing systems

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Mesoamerica, along with Mesopotamia and China, is among the three known places in the world where writing has thought to have developed independently.[citation needed] Mesoamerican scripts deciphered to date are a combination of logographic and syllabic values. They are often called hieroglyphs due to the iconic shapes of many of the glyphs, a pattern superficially similar to Egyptian hieroglyphs. Fifteen examples of distinct writing systems have been identified in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, many from a single inscription.[1] The limits of archaeological dating methods make it difficult to establish which was the earliest and hence the fore-bearer from which the others developed. The best documented and deciphered Mesoamerican writing system, and the most widely known, is the classic Maya script. An extensive Mesoamerican literature has been conserved partly in indigenous scripts and partly in the postconquest transcriptions in the Latin script.

YouTube Encyclopedic

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  • ✪ What's hiding inside Maya glyphs - History of Writing Systems #6 (Syllabary)
  • ✪ How writing got civilized - History of Writing Systems #3 (Logographs)
  • ✪ Dr. Mark Van Stone - How Maya Hieroglyphs are written - Demonstration
  • ✪ Aztec and Mayan are totally different languages. Sort of.
  • ✪ History Summarized: The Maya, Aztec, and Inca


What looks at first glance like ancient art is actually a full-blown written language. But what does this homegrown Mesoamerican script teach us about the history of writing? A Maya stoneworker etches elaborate rows of characters onto a stela, a tall stone brought in from far away that’s now standing straight up in the middle of the city. The characters he’s carving look more like detailed pictures than writing, but don’t let that fool you! Take a look at this block. It means mountain, but it’s not a logograph standing for “mountain”. It’s not a rebus symbol for “think of a word that rhymes with shmountain”. It’s actually a block of two sound symbols that spell the word “witz”, the Maya word for mountain. That’s great for climbers, but chocolate lovers may instead prefer to sample these three symbols that together spell the word “kakaw”, cocoa! There’s a nifty shortcut here - this bit doesn’t even mean “ka”, it’s actually a syllable multiplier! Or “iteration mark”, if you want the fancy name. Shhh. I think you’re being watched. Over there in the jungle. Maybe not. Hmmm, “Major moments in the history of writing”! Both of these Maya glyphs combine syllable characters into blocks to write words. This is full-fledged sound writing. These aren’t logographs that happen to be read as sounds. They are sounds. Sounds capable of writing any syllable in the language. In a full syllabary, like the Classical Maya script, there are separate characters for just about every possible syllable in the language. No longer must you invent new word characters. You can make do with a much smaller set of syllable characters. Nice! But syllable writing comes with its own set of problems. Here’s a glyph that’s quite useful around these parts: “jaguar”. The word is actually “balam”. But, have you noticed something about the Mayan syllabary? Consonant plus vowel, consonant plus vowel, more consonants plus more vowels... All of these syllables end in vowels! How in the world are you supposed to write the "-lam" in “balam”? Shifty, scripty syllabaries have grappled with this problem and settled on two solutions. One: leave out the final letter. Just ignore it. The term for this is underspelling…. because…. you’re not fully spelling the word. And it’s a good solution, because, you know, ignoring your problems makes them go away. Option two: spell the last letter with an extra syllable, but use a syllable that just repeats the last vowel so that we know we can just ignore the final vowel. This gets called the “echo vowel”. Mayan likes number 2. A lot. So “kakaw” is ka-ka-wa - well, ka-times two-wa. “Witz”, the mountain, is actually wi-tzi. And your new pet “balam” is spelled ba-la-ma. Cross out the echo vowels and the words practically read themselves! Your new friend pulls you along to show you another project he’s working on - an amate codex. That’s a paper book. Yes, he has paper and yes, books! But that’s not what’s got him excited. He folds open the book he’s working on… maybe to share new ideas? No. To brag how inventive and potentially efficient his writing system is? No! For his people, the invention of the new wasn’t about ditching the old. He shows you how creative he’s been with the characters you learned. He shows you a mountain and calls it “witz”. And then a jaguar and calls it “balam”. Logographs? Wait a second. You stop and ask him, which is the correct way to write “balam”? He writes ba-la-ma. You ask him to write it again. And he writes the logograph, but with a syllable. And again, but he writes the logograph plus two syllables. He smiles mischievously. They’re all “balam”. This is what he’s proud of. He can write the same word - even the same syllable - in different ways and combinations without repeating himself. Creative! But his use of logographs plus syllables recalls the tension between sound writing and meaning writing. Meaningful determinatives helped us choose the right pronunciation for our rebus character, and Mayan logographs can still do that. But the helping hand goes both ways: the syllabary can also clarify the sounds you should make when you read a logograph. Here’s the character “jaguar”, but add a couple extra syllable hints and you make it clear that we’re meant to read this glyph as “balama”, minus the echo vowel, so “balam”. These are phonetic complements, pronunciation clues sitting comfortably alongside logographs. If that’s all too complex, just remember that you can write everything in syllables. But before you have time to settle into this land of balam and kakaw to practice those syllables, a sandy wind starts blowing in from the East, a familiar reminder from a faraway land where even more dramatic changes are about to shape the future of writing.


Olmec writing

The 62 glyphs of the Cascajal block.
The 62 glyphs of the Cascajal block.

Early Olmec ceramics show representations of something that may be codices, suggesting that amatl bark codices, and by extension well-developed writing, existed in Olmec times.[citation needed] It was also long thought that many of the glyphs present on Olmec monumental sculpture, such as those on the so-called "Ambassador Monument" (La Venta Monument 13), represented an early Olmec script. This suspicion was reinforced in 2002 by the announcement of the discovery of similar glyphs at San Andres.

In September 2006, a report published in Science magazine announced the discovery of the Cascajal block, a writing-tablet-sized block of serpentine with 62 characters unlike any yet seen in Mesoamerica. This block was discovered by locals in the Olmec heartland and was dated by the archaeologists to approximately 900 BCE based on other debris. If the authenticity and date can be verified, this will prove to be the earliest writing yet found in Mesoamerica.

Monument 3 at San Jose Mogote.  The two shaded glyphs between his legs are likely his name, Earthquake 1.
Monument 3 at San Jose Mogote. The two shaded glyphs between his legs are likely his name, Earthquake 1.

Zapotec writing

Another candidate for earliest writing system in Mesoamerica is the writing system of the Zapotec culture. Rising in the late Pre-Classic era after the decline of the Olmec civilization, the Zapotecs of present-day Oaxaca built an empire around Monte Alban. On a few monuments at this archaeological site, archaeologists have found extended text in a glyphic script. Some signs can be recognized as calendric information but the script as such remains undeciphered. Read in columns from top to bottom, its execution is somewhat cruder than that of the later Classic Maya and this has led epigraphers to believe that the script was also less phonetic than the largely syllabic Maya script. These are, however, speculations.

The earliest known monument with Zapotec writing is a "Danzante" stone, officially known as Monument 3, found in San Jose Mogote, Oaxaca. It has a relief of what appears to be a dead and bloodied captive with two glyphic signs between his legs, probably representing his name. First dated to 500–600 BCE, this was earlier considered the earliest writing in Mesoamerica. However doubts have been expressed as to this dating and the monument may have been reused. The Zapotec script went out of use only in the late Classic period.

Detail showing glyphs from 2nd century CE La Mojarra Stela 1 currently located at the Museum of Anthropology of Xalapa, Veracruz, Mexico. The left column gives a Long Count date of, or 162 CE. The other columns are glyphs from the Epi-Olmec script.
Detail showing glyphs from 2nd century CE La Mojarra Stela 1 currently located at the Museum of Anthropology of Xalapa, Veracruz, Mexico. The left column gives a Long Count date of, or 162 CE. The other columns are glyphs from the Epi-Olmec script.

Epi-Olmec or Isthmian script

A small number of artifacts found in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec show examples of another early Mesoamerican writing system. They can be seen to contain calendric information but are otherwise undeciphered. The longest of these texts are on La Mojarra Stela 1 and the Tuxtla Statuette. The writing system used is very close to the Maya script, using affixal glyphs and Long Count dates, but is read only in one column at a time as is the Zapotec script. It has been suggested that this Isthmian or Epi-Olmec script is the direct predecessor of the Maya script, thus giving the Maya script a non-Maya origin. Another artifact with Epi-Olmec script is the Chiapa de Corzo stela which is the oldest monument of the Americas inscribed with its own date: the Long Count on the stela dates it to 36 BCE.

In a 1997 paper, John Justeson and Terrence Kaufman put forward a decipherment of Epi-Olmec. The following year, however, their interpretation was disputed by Stephen Houston and Michael D. Coe, who unsuccessfully applied Justeson and Kaufman's decipherment system against epi-Olmec script from the back of a hitherto unknown mask. The matter remains under dispute.

Abaj Takalik and Kaminaljuyú scripts

In the highland Maya archaeological sites of Abaj Takalik and Kaminaljuyú writing has been found dating to Izapa culture. It is likely that in this area in late Pre-Classic times an ancient form of a Mixe–Zoquean language was spoken, and the inscriptions found here may be in such a language rather than a Maya one. Some glyphs in this scripts are readable as they are identical to Maya glyphs but the script remains undeciphered. The advanced decay and destruction of these archaeological sites make it improbable that more monuments with these scripts will come to light making possible a decipherment.

Maya glyphs in stucco at the Museo de sitio in Palenque, Mexico
Maya glyphs in stucco at the Museo de sitio in Palenque, Mexico

Maya writing

Maya writing is attested from the mid-preclassic period in the center of Petén in the Maya lowlands, and lately scholars have suggested that the earliest Maya inscriptions may in fact be the oldest of Mesoamerica. The earliest inscriptions in an identifiably Maya script date back to 200–300 BCE. Early examples include the painted inscriptions at the caves of Naj Tunich and La Cobanerita in El Petén, Guatemala. The most elaborate inscriptions are considered to be those at classic sites like Palenque, Copán and Tikal.

The Maya script is generally considered to be the most fully developed Mesoamerican writing system, mostly because of its extraordinary aesthetics and because it has been partially deciphered. In Maya writing, logograms and syllable signs are combined. Around 700 different glyphs have been documented, with some 75% having been deciphered. Around 7000 texts in Maya script have been documented.

Maya writing first developed as only utilizing logograms, but later included the use of phonetic complements in order to differentiate between the semantic meanings of the logograms and for context that allows for syllabic spelling of words.[2]

Mixtec writing

The Mixtec writing emerged during the 13th century, much later than the systems previously mentioned. Mixtec is a semasiographic system that was used by the pre-Hispanic Mixtecs. Many of its characteristics were later adopted by the Mexica and Mixteca-Puebla writing systems. The origin of the Mixteca-Puebla is the subject of debate amongst experts. The Mixtec writing system consisted of a set of figurative signs and symbols that served as guides for storytellers as they recounted legends. These storytellers were usually priests and other members of the Mixtec upper class.

Mixtec writing has been categorized as being a mixture of pictorial and logographic, rather than a complete logogram system.[3]

Mixtec writing has been preserved through various archaeological artifacts that have survived the passage of time and the destruction of the Spanish conquest.[4] Among these objects are four pre-Hispanic codices written on tanned deer skin covered with stucco. These codices are read in boustrophedon, a zigzag style in which the reader follows red lines that indicate the way to read.[5] Most of the current knowledge about the writing of the Mixtecans is due to the work of Alfonso Caso, who undertook the task of deciphering the code based on a set of pre-Columbian and colonial documents of the Mixtec culture.[6]

Although the Mixtecs had a set of symbols that allowed them to record historical dates, they did not use the long count calendar characteristic of other southeast Mesoamerican writing systems. Instead, the codices that have been preserved record historical events of this pre-Columbian people, especially those events related to expansionism in the era of Ocho Venado, lord of Tilantongo.[7]

Other potential Mesoamerican writing systems

Two other potential writing systems have been found in Mesoamerica. The Tlatilco cylinder seal was found during the time frame of the Olmec occupation of Tlatilco, and appears to contain a non-pictographic script. The Chiapa de Corzo cylinder seal found at that location in Mexico also appears to be an example of an unknown Mesoamerican script.[8]

Writing in post-classic cultures

Detail of first page from the Aztec Boturini Codex showing the use of semasiological writing combined with phonetic glyph elements.
Detail of first page from the Aztec Boturini Codex showing the use of semasiological writing combined with phonetic glyph elements.

After the collapse of the classic Maya civilization, the Maya glyphic system continued to be used, but much less so. Post-classic inscriptions are found at the Yucatán peninsula in sites such as Chichén Itza and Uxmal but the style is not nearly as accomplished as the classic Maya inscriptions. Other post-classic cultures such as the Aztec did not have fully developed writing systems, but instead used semasiographic writing although they have been said to be slowly developing phonetic principles in their writing by the use of the rebus principle. Aztec name glyphs for example do combine logographic elements with phonetic readings.


  1. ^ Macri, Martha J. (1996). "Maya and Other Mesoamerican Scripts," in The World's Writing Systems. England: Oxford. p. 172-182.
  2. ^ L Campbell; Kaufman, and T. (1985). "Maya Linguistics: Where Are We Now?". Annual Review of Anthropology. 14 (1): 187–198. doi:10.1146/
  3. ^ Kubler, George (1974). "Review of Picture Writing from Ancient Southern Mexico: Mixtec Place Signs and Maps". American Anthropologist. 76 (3): 670–672. doi:10.2307/674740. JSTOR 674740.
  4. ^ Pohl, John M. D. (2005). "The Griffin Fragment: A Mixtec Drinking Vessel Portraying the Pace Sign for 'Hill of the Turkey". Record of the Art Museum, Princeton University. 64: 81–90.
  5. ^ Jansen, Marten (1982). Huisi Tacu. Estudio interpretativo de un libro mixteco antiguo. Codex Vindobonensis Mexicanus I. Amsterdam: Centro de Estudios y Documentación Latinoamericanos.
  6. ^ Fagan, Brian (2014). The Great Archaeologists. New York: Thames & Hudson. pp. 110–114. ISBN 978-0-500-05181-8.
  7. ^ López Ramos, Juan Arturo (1987). Esplendor de la antigua Mixteca. México: Editorial Trillas. pp. 99–109. ISBN 968-24-2613-8.
  8. ^ Kelley, David H. (1966). "A Cylinder Seal from Tlatilco". American Antiquity. 31 (5): 744–46.
  • Michael D. Coe and Justin Kerr, The Art of the Maya Scribe, Thames and Hudson. 1997.
  • Martinez, Ma. del Carmen Rodríguez; Ponciano Ortíz Ceballos; Michael D. Coe; Richard A. Diehl; Stephen D. Houston; Karl A. Taube; Alfredo Delgado Calderón; "Oldest Writing in the New World", in Science, 15 September 2006, vol. 313, no. 5793, pp. 1610–1614.
  • Nielsen, Jesper, Under slangehimlen, Aschehoug, Denmark, 2000.
  • Sampson, Geoffrey. Writing Systems: A Linguistic Introduction. Hutchinson (London), 1985.

External links

This page was last edited on 27 May 2019, at 05:39
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