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LocationAmericas > Mesoamerica
Time100 BCE to 500 CE
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News: Ancient Mask Adds to Corpus of Isthmian Script

One of the most amazing thing about Mesoamerican archaeology is that new discoveries are constantly being made. Among one of the most important was the discovery of an inscribed slab found under the waters of the Acula River near the village of La Mojarra in 1986 in the Mexican state of Veracruz. Dubbed Stela 1 of La Mojarra, this monument was inscribed with 465 glyphs arranged in 21 columns, and the image of a ruler. The writing on it is nothing like any other writing system in Mesoamerica, such as Maya, Zapotec, Mixtec, or Aztec, although like the Maya it also used the Long Count.

However, Stela 1 of La Mojarra is not the only example of its writing system. Most of the monuments that bear glyphs in the same (or similar) writing system are also found near the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the thin stretch of land that separates the majority of Mexico from its south-eastern states and from Central America, although none has texts as long as the Stela. The famous Tuxtla Statuette, a hand-length nephrite figurine of an almost comedic man dressed in a duck's outfit, bears a Long Count date of 162 CE as well as non-calendric glyphs. Other famous inscriptions include Stela C of Tres Zapotes, with a Long Count date of 32 BCE, and Stela 1 of Chiapa de Corzo (located in Chiapas, Mexico), with an incomplete date conjectured to be 36 BCE. In the site of Cerro de las Mesas, Veracruz, highly erroded monuments also bear Long Count dates, but from the early Classic period at around 450 CE, as well as a large stone version of the Tuxtla Statuette devoid of any text.

Scholars have given this script many names. Epi-Olmec since it is more common in scientific literature. Some have called this script the "La Mojarra script" after the location where the Stela was found. Another name, also based on a geographical name, is the "Isthmian Script", named after the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. You would find all three names used in publications, and websites. Yet another name is the "Tuxtla Script", named after the Tuxtla Statuette as well as the Tuxtla Mountains near which many of the texts have been found.

Proposed Decipherment by Justeson and Kaufman

Among the researchers who have worked on this script were John Justeson and Terrence Kaufman, who in 1993 published a paper in the journey Science describing the partial decipherment that they have arrived.

Justeson and Kaufman proposed that the language this script recorded was pre-proto-Zoquean, which belongs to a small language family called Mixe-Zoquean. This family is still spoken today around the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.

Why Mixe-Zoquean? Why not Mayan, or any other family for that matter? Well, it has been theorized that speakers of Mixe-Zoquean languages have stayed near the Isthmus of Tehuantepec since the Pre-Classic, and many modern Mixe-Zoquean languages are still spoken in this area. Secondly, there are a lot of Mixe-Zoquean loanwords in other Mesoamerican languages, such as pom, or copal incense, a very important component of any ritual (even today), and kakawa, or cacao beans, used for preparing ritual drinks as well as currency. It is likely that the Olmecs spoke a Mixe-Zoquean language, because the environmental requirements of these plants match that of Gulf Coast Mexico. Kaufman argued that as the Olmecs transmitted their rituals, words related to these rituals also diffused. And it is also likely the people who subsequently inhabited the same geographical area as the Olmecs were descendants of the Olmecs and spoke a Mixe-Zoquean tongue. And therefore their writing system would therefore record a Mixe-Zoquean language.

Well, this isn't truly an impeccable model. There is still not enough information to argue that there wasn't an influx of people into the Isthmus and thus replacing earlier inhabitants. Also, the fundamental assumption that the Olmec spoke a Mixe-Zoquean language is still debatable. In fact, the correctness of the Justeson/Kaufman decipherment was thrown into doubt with the discovery of a new mask. When veteran epigraphers Stephen Houston and Michael Coe plugged the values proposed by Justeson and Kaufman into the texts on the mask, they found the reading far from satisfactory.

There is still much to be done to either prove or disprove the Justeson and Kaufman decipherment. However, in the mean time, I will assume that their work is valid and present an overview based on their work.

Overview of the Epi-Olmec Script

The Epi-Olmec script turned out to be structurally similar to the Maya. It is logophonetic, meaning that one set of the signs, the phonograms, have phonetic values, while the other glyphs, called logograms, represents morpheme. A morpheme is a word or part of a word that cannot be broken further into smaller units with relevant meaning. For instance, the English word beautiful can be broken down into beauty and -ful, neither of which can be broken down further. Beauty is a morpheme because it is a word. Furthermore, -ful carries the meaning of "a lot of", and can also be used with other words, like bountiful, faithful, and others. Hence it is not a unique derivation of beauty, but a morpheme in its own right.

In a logophonetic system, both logograms and phonograms are used. Frequently logograms make up the root of a word whereas phonograms spell out the prefixes and suffixes that modify the root.


The vowel u ("u" with a line through the middle) is a strange vowel. It is a central high vowel, meaning that it's like the common vowel [i] but the position of the peak of the tongue is halfway between the throat and the teeth. You can check out Phonetics for details on how to pronounce it.

All phonograms in the Epi-Olmec script represent syllables. So we call the set of phonograms the syllabary:

However, because Pre-Proto-Zoquean can also have syllables that end with a consonant (like CVC), it is necessary to represent the second consonant. To do this, two syllabograms are used: the first glyph would represent the first consonant and the vowel, and the second glyph would just represent the last consonant, and its vowel is omitted from reading. While there are six possibilities for the second glyph (as there are six glyphs with the same initial consonant), usually the one with the same vowel as the first glyph's vowel is used. For example, to spell ’i-kip-wu, which means "he fought them", I would use the syllabograms &\#>146;i ki pi wu:


Logograms are signs that represent an entire morpheme, that is, a whole word, or part of a word that has meaning similar to that of the word. They usually do not contain any phonetic information at all.

The following is a grab bag of logograms, some with known reading and meaning, while others only meanings are known.

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