Writing (or sort of) in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica

You know that problem: You are an Aztec worker, coming home from a hard day’s work at the main temple and simply want to relax a bit, watching some TV for example. So you grab your TV program guide and… nothing. No written explanations, just some pictures, which you would see on TV later anyway. At this point you think: “meh, if I just had a writing system”

Admittedly, this scene is pure fantasy. Nobody liked the TV program at that time; only war documentations all the day.

The writing problem however is a very interesting field of interest, especially since the different systems of passing information in Mesoamerica and Southamerica in the Pre-Columbian era were so different. Staying with the Aztecs, they first really ‘wrote’ after the Spaniards arrived and they used the Latin scripture. This can be seen in the Florentine Codex, for example.

Page from the Kodex Florentino

Before they used their very famous picture books of which just some managed to evade the Spanish book burning fires. But how does that look in the other cultures that were around the Pre-Columbian era? Let’s have a look!


There is evidence supporting, that the Olmecs, the mother culture of Mesoamerica, already had a scripture. This evidence has a weight of 12kg and is called the stone of Cascajal. On this stone, 62 different signs were found, 28 of them unique. Some signs appear up to four times, many are formed to a row – some scientists therefore support the idea of a syntax in that writing. Judging from some word endings, it even seems as if the writing rhymes, which would mean, that we can see a very early poem here.

Another oddity is the form of the stone. While the five sides without symbols are convex, the written surface concave. This probably means, that the stone has been used for writing several times, each time removing the predecending layer of symbols.

The stone is dated to 900BC and is therefore the oldest proof of scripture and writing on both American continents. For comparison, in Europe, the Greek alphabet started to be used at around that time. The Latin alphabet came roughly 200 years later.

The text on the Cascajal Stone
picture: Evertype/wikipedia/cc-by-sa


It is unfortunate, that a culture with such a remarkable change in scripture has such a name. Sure, they were succesors of the Olmecs, but their calendars and writing were extraordinary and so they should really have deserved their own name. The culture was living around the Isthmus of Tehuantepec; their biggest centres were ‘Tres Zapotes’ (originally a big Olmec city) and ‘Cerro De Las Mesas’. As this entry is about writing, let’s have a look at it.

In fact, it reminds us of the later Maya scripture. It also used two sets of symbols – one set for word units and another for syllables. The decipherment is still debated, so we can’t know for sure yet, what this example of Epi-Olmec scripture really says, yet. On the left side of this scripture, you see an example for a long count date of a Mesoamerican Calendar in the same numeral symbols, that the Maya used. Such a long count date gives us a lot of annoyance these days. The dating of the scriptures is nearly impossible. Theories say that it has been in use from 500BC to 500AD.

The Mojarra inscription
picture: Madman2001/wikipedia/cc-by-sa


Starting at roughly 600BC, the Zapotec used a similar logo-syllabic system, even though the use was not really wide spread. It was mainly for group identification at the beginning. Later however, the Zapotec scripture evolved and spread from the central valleys of Oaxaca to whole Southwest of Mesoamerica. After around 1500 years of usage however, it got replaced by the influencal Mixteca-Puebla scripture.

Note the symbols between the legs
San Jose Mogote, Monument 3
picture: Madman2001/wikipedia/cc-by-sa


Let’s proceed to the most complex writing system of the Pre-Columbian era – the Maya scripture. It was being used from the 3rd century BC. It is well deciphered and documented, mainly because we found so many texts. The Maya didn’t only write in the Codices, they wrote on everything. Steles, Temples, …. We have a large variety of examples. Compared to our writing, the Maya scripture is very complex. Sure, we both use phonetic signs to write what we speak. However, compared to our 26 signs, the Maya scripture is made from nearly 800 different signs, that are combinable with each other.

Even though the numeral and syllabic signs of Maya and Epi-Olmec cultures look pretty much the same, they describe a very different language.

The scripture’s symbols changed over time, staying basically the same. The Maya scripture even gives us the possibility to determine different authors in the Codices. By little differences and characteristics in writing, we can for example say, that the Dresden Codex has been written by eight different writers.

Page 2 of Dresden Codex


I will keep this one a bit shorter, since it is also well explained by the Aztec/Mexica writing. In Mixteca-Puebla, dating around 1250-1550AD, we find the usage of pictographic and ideographic writing, basically drawing what you want to say. Unlike Maya for example, there were no symbols for single syllables and therefore also no way to actually write words in the way we do it nowadays. There are still many puzzles around the usage of the language in communication. An example for Mixteca can be found in the following picture, depicting two men trading with each other.

picture: Travis S./flickr.com/cc-by-nc


As Mixteca-Puebla writing, the Aztec writing was a pictographic and ideographic scripture, but got widely used, due to the Aztec extensive trading efforts with other cultures and the huge dimensions of the late Aztec area. It was essentially helpful for trading, when you could simply drew the things, that you had in stock, for example. There are still many documents available; by far not enough, however. Also here many documents were burned. But the ones that we still have access to are fascinating documents. Basically picture books, they told stories and gave many informations. The newer Codices have additional notes on Spanish on them. One of those Codices is especially beautiful, which is why I will present two pictures of it.

Codex Mendoza, Folio 2
it depicts the legend of the founding of Tenochtitlan. This scene can also be found on nowadays Mexican flag

Codex Mendoza, Folio 47
this depicts the tribute a town had to pay, when being conquested by the Aztec empire


Not Mesoamerica, but nevertheless very interesting to have a look, what happens, when you have different cultural influences, no writing system, but still want to pass information to other people. For that purpose, the Inca used a thing called ‘Quipu’, the Quechua word for ‘knot’. In the end, that’s a long string or cord, from which several other cords are hanging. The amount of knots in the single cords resemble numerical information interpreted in the decimal system. The complete information however was only available, if someone told you, what the numbers are about. Otherwise a Quipu is just comparable to a note with numbers. Without someone telling you, for what those numbers are, you don’t get the slightest idea. Those interpreters were the ‘Quipucamayocs’, literally the knot-authorities.

There are still many unsolved mysteries about what those Quipus actually could transmit. Many of them had different colors, which could be a non-numerical information. We will have to wait to find out more. Here’s a picture of a Quipu:

An Inca Quipu
picture: ellenmac11/flickr.com/cc-by-nc-nd


From all we can say now, the Maya would definitely have had the best TV program guides. Not only could they show more than single scenes of the movies, but also describe the action and even print some reviews. It’s a shame, that so many old words were destroyed by imperialistic, missionary forces. This should teach us to appreciate and study the examples we still can find.

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4 Responses to Writing (or sort of) in Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica

  1. Pingback: Figurines from Caral | The Complete MesoAmerica… and more

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  4. Edward Murdoch says:

    I think the key concept is that European destruction of Native artifacts was so comprehensive, it is really impossible to claim with certainty such cultures did not have more sophisticated forms of writings.

    And the Fuente Magna is a great example that points to the opposite conclusion.
    Not to mention than, for example, being capable to move 131 metric tons boulders more than 40 miles, over water and steep land, at over 12,000 feet above sea level, (Puma Punku) must have required accumulation of complex knowledge from more than 1 generation…hence, sophisticated writing.

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