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Mesoamerican Writing Systems
Quick Facts
LocationAmericas > Mesoamerica
Time900 BCE to 1697 CE

Extending from the deserts of northern Mexico to the dry tropical forests of northwestern Costa Rica, Mesoamerica is a geographically and ethnically diverse area that included thousands of cultures united by similarities in religion, art, language, and sociopolitical organization. Some of the familiar Mesoamerican cultures include the Aztecs, the Mayas, and the Olmecs, with lesser publicized groups such as Zapotecs, Teotihuacanos, Mixtecs, and Tarascans thrown in the mix.

Among one of the common cultural traits found in many Mesoamerican groups is writing. In fact, Mesoamerica is the only place in the Americas where indigenous writing systems were invented and used before European colonization. While the types of writing systems in Mesoamerica range from minimalist "picture-writing" to complex logophonetic systems capable to recording speech and literature, they all share some core features that make them visually and functionally distinct from other writing systems of the world.

Common Features of Mesoamerican Writing Systems

The most distinguishable feature of all Mesoamerican scripts is the highly intricate and pictorial form of signs. They are often called "hieroglyphic" in analogy to Egyptian hieroglyphs since their symbols are highly pictorial. For this reason, a sign from a Mesoamerican scripts is often called a "glyph", as a short form of "hieroglyph". Visually, Mesoamerican scripts resemble each other, and share many similar glyphs. This is primarily due to the fact that many Mesoamerican glyphs bear resemblance to real objects such as animals, people, natural features, etc, albeit in a stylized fashion. Often animals and humans appear as "portraits" in that only the heads of these creatures are drawn, but in few cases "full-body" glyphs are also used. Human body parts, especially arms and legs, are also used extensively to denote action, or verbs if used as grammatical structures. Other times glyphs appear as complex geometrical shapes like circles, rectangles, cross-hatches, etc.

As these examples show, Mesoamerican glyphs are more like paintings than Western alphabetic scripts. In fact, often the line between writing and visual art blurs. Glyphs or glyphic elements would appear, for example, inside the headdress of a ruler's portrait to denote his name, or conversely, the name of the ruler would be "written" by artistic representations of words that make up his name. The most "integrated" examples would be the Aztec and Mixtec manuscripts where names of places and people often are directly drawn into the pictures themselves. The writing of Teotihuacan is so integrated into their murals that it's only been recently that archaeologists have realized that there was a writing system in Teotihuacan.

Another feature found in all Mesoamerican writing systems is a common number system. At the basic level, all Mesoamerican scripts employ the bar-and-dot notation, where a dot represented a value of "one" and a bar represented "five".

In some cases, such as Mixtec and Aztec manuscripts, only dots are used, but on monumental Mixtec and Aztec inscriptions bars are used as well.

The bar-and-dot notation is used to write numbers less than twenty. For quantities larger than twenty, different methods are used by different systems. The Aztecs, for example, used special symbols such as a flag to represent 20, a feather to represent 400, and an incense bag for 8000. To construct the number 946, you would draw two feathers (2 x 400 = 800), seven flags (7 x 20 = 140), and six dots (6 x 1 = 6), the sum of which (800 + 140 + 6) is 946.

The Maya, on the other hand, had a more complex way of doing things. They also had a special sign for twenty in the form of a half moon, but to write larger numbers they used positional notation, just like our modern "Arabic" numbers. In a positional system, every digit is multiplied by some power of the base. So for example, in the modern decimal system digits can range from 0 to 9, and each digit is multiplied by a power of 10. Following this concept, the number 5209 can be expressed as a sum of numbers: 5209 = 5x103 + 2x102 + 0x101 + 9x100. In comparison, in a vigesimal system such as the Maya, "digits" can go from 0 to 19, and each "digit" is multiplied by a power of 20. However, each "digit" is actually a number in the bar-and-dot notation, plus a symbol for the quantity zero in the shape of a stylized conch shell. For example, the quantity 5209 would in fact be represented like so:

With such an expressive number system, it was no accident that time-keeping was also a very complex art in ancient Mesoamerica. Elaborate calendars were devised by different people, but at the core there are two interlocked time cycles kept by all Mesoamerican cultures. They are the 365-day solar calendar, and the 260-day sacred calendar. As its name implies, the 365-day calendar is based on the movements of the Earth around the Sun, and divided into 18 "months" of 20 days, with a 5-day period at the end that was considered dangerous and evil. On the other hand, the 260-day the sacred calendar does not correspond to any astronomical cycle, but, according to modern Quiché Maya day-keepers, represents the gestational period of the human fetus. Unlike the solar calendar, the sacred calendar has no concept of months, but instead consists of two parallel and interlocking cycles of days. The first cycle consists of 20 named "day signs", whereas the second cycle consists of 13 "day coefficients". A day is therefore identified by a sign and a coefficient. When the sacred calendar moves forward by a day, both the sign as well as the coefficient are advanced.

An example might be in order to better illustrate this interesting calendar. Let's say that our day signs are the first 20 letters in the English alphabet, namely A, B, C, D, and so on, until T, and our coefficients are from 1 to 13. If today is A-1, then tomorrow is B-2, followed by C-3, and so on and so forth. When we get to M-13, at which point we have depleted all coefficients, we turn the coefficients cycle back to 1, and therefore the day after M-13 is N-1. And when we have exhausted all day signs, on day T-7, we recycle the sign cycle back to A, so the day after T-7 is A-8. When both signs and coefficients have exhausted (so that A-1 reappears), 260 days have elapsed.

The interlocking cycles can be visualized in the following Flash animation:

Interpolating these solar and sacred calendars, the Mesoamerican created a time cycle of 52 years, called the Calendar Round. This is the largest unit of time for most Mesoamerican cultures, and therefore historical events are often recorded in terms of dates within a Calendar Round.

There were other cycles that the Mesoamericans kept. One example is the trecena, which is cycles of thirteen days within the sacred calendar. The Maya also tracked the motion of the planet Venus across the night sky and computed a cycle of 584 days, which is the time it takes for Earth and Venus to line up with respect to the Sun.

The Maya and the Epi-Olmecs also used the largest cycle of time in Mesoamerica called the Long Count, a calendar consisting of 5 coefficients and capable of recording an exact date in a 5000-year cycle. The Long Count for both Maya and Epi-Olmecs started at what is equivalent to the year 3113 BCE, which is considered (at least by the Maya) as the beginning of the current creation. In the usual 5-coefficient system, the Long Count will end in 2012 CE, and many have claimed that this is "the end of the world" for the Maya. However, there is evidence that there are 19 coefficients in the Long Count, giving it more "time" than the estimated maximum age of the universe computed by astrophysicists!

Iconography - Precursors of Writing

Unlike other parts of the world, writing in Mesoamerica did not start as an accounting aid but instead had religious, political, and historical purposes. It marked those who possessed and leveraged the knowledge of writing as a group of higher social status than the common people, and therefore reinforced the ruling elite's claim to power.

One of the earliest complex urban cultures to appear in Mesoamerica were the Olmecs, whose villages and towns sprang up in the tropical, riverine regions of Mexico's Veracruz and Tabasco states. During the Early and Middle Pre-Classic periods (1500 to 300 BCE) in Mesoamerica, the Olmecs depicted their rulers on giant monuments in the shape of human heads. While the facial features on these colossal Olmec heads are generic and similar, they are far from anonymous. Each head wears a "helmet", which contains decorations that are different from one head to another. These decorations might represent some aspect of the ruler's identity, whether it is a name, a heraldic symbol, or a title. In essence, this might be an ancient form of name-tagging, found in many texts throughout Mesoamerica's history.

Olmec head 1, La Venta. Notice the pattern on his "helmet".

In addition, there was a highly elaborate and conventionalized system of symbols that appeared in the Pre-Classic throughout much of Mesoamerica. This means that symbols carved in, say, Oaxaca, could be interpreted by a knowledgeable person (maybe a chief or a shaman) in the Gulf Coast or in Morelos. While archaeologists once agreed this uniformity of symbols and icons as a product of Olmec influence (cultural, political, military, or any combination of these), now there is more of an opinion that the Olmecs were only one of the many advanced people during the Pre-Classic and thus many different cultures might have led to the development of this system of symbols.

Once a conventionalized set of symbols with specific meanings became established, juxtaposition of such could convey more complicated ideas. For instance, consider this:

Relief 1 of Chalcatzingo, depicting ruler sitting inside a caiman's mouth.

This relief conveys the idea that a person, most likely the ruler or chief, has access to natural powers such as clouds, rain, wind, and growth of plants. In essence, this carving indicates the ruler's right to rule because he, and nobody else, can control the fertility of crops.

While a rich number of icons formed parts of works of art, they tend to be isolated with respect to each other. This means that the order in which the icons are read do not matter. This started to change, though, on some small scale objects. The ceremonial celts started to move toward putting these symbols together to give a sequence of ideas.

For example, the Humboldt Celt, believed to have been carved at around 900 BCE, shows several groups of symbols likely worked together to convey some kind of a message. Interpretation by John Justeson indicates that the celt likely served as a formalized greeting from the ruler of one site to another, since the group that depicts two arms touching is a typical Mesoamerican gesture of greeting, and the group that depicts a hand casting corn represents a ceremony marking special occasions.

Many icons must have surely become glyphs in later writing systems, but so far only a few have been studied. You can read about one, called the Lazy-S symbol, from the paper called The Lazy-S: Formative Period Iconographic Loan to Maya Hieroglyphic Writing.

Earliest Writing?

No doubt the first components of Mesoamerican writing systems to develop must have been the number system and the calendar. The earliest examples of writing among different Mesoamerican cultures already exhibit bar-and-dot numbers and sacred calendar dates. This suggests that these two might have developed long before writing

Because of the similarities among the various Mesoamerican scripts, there's long been a notion that there was a writing system, invented by the Olmecs, that predated all historically-attested scripts and was the progenitor of all subsequent scripts. However, what meager examples of this Olmec writing system exist solely in private collections and no examples have been found in archaeological contexts, thus cannot be securely dated and shown to be made during the florescence of the Olmec culture.

This situation changed with several recent discoveries. In 2002, archaeological excavations conducted by Mary Pohl at the Olmec site of San Andrés uncovered a cylindrical seal and two fragments of a green-stone plaque, both of which bear possible signs of a writing system. These items were archaeologically dated to approximately 650 BCE, making them some of the oldest examples of Mesoamerican writing.

Of interest is the cylindrical seal, as it has the drawing of a bird with a "funnel" emanating from its mouth and ending in a sequence of abstract symbols. The funnel likely represents the act of speaking, and so the symbols on the right might be what the bird is saying. Most of the sequence cannot be deciphered, but it is possible that the three dots and the "smiling face" sign might form a calendrical compound, interpreted by Pohl and colleagues as similar to the Maya day "3 Ahaw".

More impressively, in 2006, the Cascajal block came to the public's attention. The small stone tablet is inscribed with 62 signs, which while undeciphered, do bear significant similarity to known icons used frequently in Olmec art. In other words, the Cascajal block might very well be an example of the Olmec writing system.

The Cascajal block was discovered in a quarry which turned out to be an archaeological site, so its original archaeological context was disturbed. However, through examination of its surroundings and its iconography, it was concluded that it dates to between 1000 and 800 BCE. While not as securely dated as the San Andrés seal and potsherds, the Cascajal block is nevertheless considered to be the oldest text in Mesoamerica.

Because of the meager amount of inscriptions on the Cascajal block, it cannot be deciphered. Only through discovery of more texts in this writing system can a more thorough investigation begin, and hopefully lead to a better understanding of the oldest writing system in the New World.

Writing Systems

Beginning at the Late Preclassic, ample evidence of writing appeared in multiple places in Mesoamerica. The major systems at this time were Zapotec Epi-Olmec, and Maya. By the Classic (300 to 900 CE) and Post-Classic (900 to 1500 CE), several more systems appear, most likely inspired or derived from Zapotec. These are Teotihuacano, Ñuiñe, Xochicalco, Mixtec, Mixteca-Puebla, and Aztec. Even though writing was widespread in Mesoamerica and many cultures had their own scripts, it is generally accepted that all Mesoamerican writing systems can be divided into two groups: Southeastern and Oaxacan.

Southeastern Group

The Southeastern group is aptly named as it is situated in the southeastern part of Mesoamerica. This group consists of two scripts, Maya and #a @epiolmec#. They share many common features, such as a full set of phonetic signs representing all possible sounds in the language, the use of the Long Count, and long text passages that more or less represent linguistic units (nouns, verbs, etc) and constructs (phrases, sentences, etc).

The Maya script is arguably the most enduring Mesoamerican writing system, lasting about nearly 2000 years from the Late Preclassic (300 BCE) to the fall of the last independent Maya kingdom (1697 CE). Its most distinctive feature is the squarish glyph blocks (that actually contain one to five different glyphs) and the double-column text layout (which results in a zigzagging reading order that starts on the top left, moves one block right, then down and left, and so on).

For more information on Maya writing, you can continue on to the Maya page.

In the Gulf Coast and highland Chiapas of Mexico, where the Olmecs had lived, another script of the Southeastern group also emerged during the late Preclassic. Called Epi-Olmec (meaning "after Olmec") on geographic and iconographic grounds, this writing system has been known for a long time but only has been studied within the last twenty years or so. The best example is the La Mojarra Stela 1:

Little is known about this writing system, as this system is currently in the early stages of decipherment. What one can say, though, is that it is definitely a logophonetic system, employing both phonetic and logographic signs, and represents an ancient language in the Mixe-Zoquean family. It also uses the Long Count to date important events, and assuming that the Epi-Olmec Long Count has a similar start date as the Maya Long Count, the range of Epi-Olmec Long Count dates range from the 1st century BCE to the 6th century CE, although it is likely that it began much earlier. You can visit the Epi-Olmec page for more detail.

Oaxacan Group

As its name implies, the Oaxacan group is centered near the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. However, many Central Mexican writing systems are also classified under this group because they can be traced to the first Oaxacan writing system, the Zapotec script.

The notoriety of the earliest Mesoamerican writing system belongs to Zapotec. The earliest Zapotec monument comes from an ancient town called San José Mogote in the Valley of Oaxaca, and probably dates from 500 BCE. The monument is a slab of stone called a danzante that depicts a slain captive. What makes it the earliest written document is the set of two glyphs underneath the victim that is generally interpreted as the calendrical signs 1 Earthquake or Movement (Xoo) but might in fact be 1 Eye (Loo) according to Urcid 2001. You might find the meaning of the two signs strange, but in fact ancient Oaxacans were named for days in the Sacred Calendar. This means that the slab identified the slain victim, who was most likely the ruler of an enemy town.

The vast majority of Zapotec texts come from the city of Monte Albán, which was built around 500 BCE and served as the Zapotec capital for the next 1200 years. Texts from this great city served political functions by publicly depicting slain enemies, recording conquered territory, and commemorating important events like royal ascension and death.

The Zapotec script is still very poorly understood, as it has not been the frequent subject of Mesoamerican studies. Even the calendrical signs are still debatable. Recent studies appear to confirm the notion that the Zapotec script did indeed record language more thoroughly then later Aztec and Mixtec scripts. For more information, please visit my Zapotec page.

Similar to the Zapotec script but geographically located in a different part of Oaxaca is the Ñuiñe script. Whereas the Zapotecs inhabited the valleys, the people who used the Ñuiñe script lived on hilltops and were likely the ancestors of the Mixtecs (which we'll see later). Very little is known about the Ñuiñe other than the basic calendrical signs mostly due to a dearth of evidence.

Contemporaneous to the Monte Albán but on a much larger scale is the great city of Teotihuacan, the greatest urban center of Mesoamerica. At its height, it had as much as 125,000 people. However, no writing system similar to the Zapotec or Maya scripts has been detected in Teotihuacan. This has led many scholars to propose that Teotihuacan never had a writing system beyond the basic numbers and calendrical signs. However, recent discoveries have shed tantalizing clues on what might be a truly functional Teotihuacano writing system. In a recently excavated courtyard in the La Ventilla "barrio" of Teotihuacan, archaeologist Rubén Cabrera Castro discovered columns of glyphs painted on the floor. Further study by Karl Taube (Taube 2000) reveals a writing system whose glyphs have two very difference appearances, one resembling more the rectilinear and somewhat regularly-shaped glyphs of the neighboring Zapotecs and Mayas, and the other appearing fully integrated as "emblematic" elements in the city's murals. These emblematic glyphs were much more free-form and iconic, and much more similar to glyphs of the later Aztec and Mixtec scripts.

For more information, visit the Teotihuacan page.

After the collapse of Teotihuacan in 750 CE, other cities in Central Mexico arose to take advantage of the power vacuum. The two most famous of these two cities, Xochicalco and Cacaxtla, both exhibit a strange hybrid of artistic and scribal traditions. The art of these cities are a mix of Maya, Teotihuacano, and Zapotec styles. Similarly, the writing system also exhibits both the squarish Zapotec calendrical glyphs as well as the more free-form emblematic Teotihuacano glyphs.

The Postclassic period in Mesoamerica (after 900 CE) saw the emergence of new nations into recorded history. Two of the most famous groups are the Mixtecs and Aztecs, both of which left behind a considerable corpus of manuscripts and to some lesser extent inscribed monuments. The Mixtec and Aztec scripts are actually very similar. In fact, it is thought that the Mixtec script evolved from the more ancient Zapotec script, and in turn engendered the Mixtec-Puebla and Central Mexican scripts (including Aztec).

Unlike the Zapotec script, the Mixtec and Aztec scripts do not appear in long texts. In fact, glyphs almost always appear in short compounds that denote calendrical dates, personal names, and place names. These short compounds are placed in context to conventionalized drawings, and together texts and images communicate one or more messages to the reader.

After the Spanish Conquest

The native writing systems of Mesoamerica came to an end at the hand of the Spanish conquerors. Considered the "devil's work", the Spanish forbade the use of the indigenous writing systems and destroyed most books and manuscripts, except in sanctioned works that recorded the history and culture of the people they've conquered in order to better control them. In these "ethnographic" works, Spanish explanations accompany the native texts, and it was not long before the native scribes adopted the Latin alphabet to write their own languages. Many Precolumbian religious and literary works were preserved in this manner, like the Quiché creation myth "Popul Vuh", Nahuatl poems attributed to king Nezahualcoyotl of Texcoco, religious texts such as the "Chilam Balam" of the Yucatec Maya, and many others. Maps and genealogies were also drawn as hybrid native-Spanish documents to record boundaries of towns and possessions of families, and many were used in courts to settle legal disputes.

In other words, even though the native writing systems were no longer in use, the Mesoamericans continued their ancient tradition of writing, just in a different manner. And like in pre-Conquest times, the scribes usually were men of higher social status, and often employed by either the Colonial government or the Church. However, as the Colonial period came to an end, the infrastructure that employed these native scribes also felt apart. The newly independent nations emphasized the identity of being "creole", meaning descendent of Spanish in the New World. This left no room for indigenous culture, and thus no interest in indigenous literature. It was not until the 20th century CE that native literature, and native culture in general, came into significant revival. Together with cultural renaissance was also a sense of political empowerment, the most visible of which was the award of the 1992 Nobel Prize to Rigoberta Menchú, a Quiché Maya woman activist.

The last note in native literary renaissance started in the mid 1990's when Maya intellectuals attended workshops set up by the late Mayanist Linda Schele to learn the ancient writing system of their ancestors. Even though still somewhat of an intellectual curiosity, the Mayas can again write in their own writing system, and are actively contributing to its continuing decipherment.

The story of Mesoamerican writing systems is complex and ever-evolving. Many mysteries are still yet to be solved. It is not only one of the most interesting fields of research but also can be an extremely absorbing hobby. I highly recommend dwelving deeper into it. Here are some links:

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