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Pre-colonial Writing in Mesoamerica


									In this class we’ve talked about how Latin American culture is a
mix of Indigenous, African and European influences and how
that mix has developed varies depending on the particular region
of Latin America.
For example, in many
Caribbean countries
we find a strong
African influence on
culture and history
and in Mesoamerica
we find a strong and
still present
indigenous influence.

Brazilian Quilombolas during a meeting in the capital of Brazil, Brasília.
   Map of Mesoamerica

In this unit, we will be looking at Mesoamerican writing
systems in order to understand the role of writing in
ancient cultures in Latin America and to explore how the
interpretation of these texts can tell us about the past but
also about ourselves.
Some important facts about
Pre-colonial Mesoamerican
writing systems:
 1. These writing systems are
the earliest form of writing
found in the Americas
2. They are the only writing
systems that were invented in
the Americas.
3. They reveal the complex and
stratified nature of indigenous
social systems before the arrival
of Europeans.
4. They were not primarily
about telling fictional narratives
like most of what we read in
literature classes, but consisted
of economic records, origin
stories and divinatory
Before and after the
Spanish Conquest there
many different kinds of
languages and writing
styles that varied and
shifted and developed
going back before 1000
Many of the languages
spoken before the arrival
of the Spanish still are in
use today.
Mesoamerica has had
and continues to have
great linguistic
diversity. Maya
languages are still
spoken by millions of
people, and Nahuatl,
the language of the
Aztecs, is still the
tongue of about 1

                        Nahua woman from the florentine
                        codex. The Speech Scroll indicates
                        that she is speaking.
             CUENCA DE   ALTIPLANO CENTRAL       OAXACA           VERACRUZ y Costa     GUATEMALA
              MEXICO         & GUERRERO       Costa Altiplano       Sur del Golfo    Costa  Altiplano
Arrival of
Europeans                   M I X T E C A – P U E B L A S T Y L E



500           TEOTIHUACAN
                                                       ÑUIÑE        ZOQUEAN          COTZUMALHUAPA

0                                                                      ZOQUEAN

                                               ZAPOTEC                                                  MIRAFLORES

                                                                         2            KAMINALJUYU SAN BARTOLO

                                             San José Mogote M3

                                         OLMEC STYLE ICONOGRAPHY

       Diagram showing development of writing systems in Mesoamerica
Despite great language
diversity, phonetic systems
did not become the
dominant during
precolonial times. Instead
pictographs were the
dominant form of written
language. This may have
helped communication
between language groups
because the same pictures
were able to be
understood by people who
spoke different languages.
Reverse of folio 11 of the Codex Magliabechiano, showing the day signs Flint (knife),
Rain, Flower, and Crocodile.
 Elements 0f Precolonial Mesoamerican
           Writing Systems:
1. Precolonial
   Mesoamerican writing
   was often done on
   long accordion-style
   books called codices.
• One book = codex.
• More that one =
2. The codices are written
  using pictographs or
  symbols that included
  counting symbols,
  symbols for days in the
  260 day and 365 day
  calendars, and symbols
  for various gods and
• 3. Drawings were also
  used to represent ideas
  and common objects
  and activities in the
  daily pre-colonial life.
          Part 1: Decoding a Codex

Warm-Up: Students complete handout : Nahua Pictographic
Writing: Place Names
Boturini Codex
          Decoding Procedure:
 Students receive laminated color copies of Sheet
  One of the Boturini Codex.
 Students identify any similar elements from the
  previous worksheet that they see in the first
  page of the codex.
 Ask if there are any other recognizable items in
  the image? What do they think is happening in
  the image?
 Students work in groups to develop a brief
  explanation of what this codex is saying.
• On an island in a big lake there are seated two
  members of royalty—a man and a woman ruler. They
  were settled there where six houses stand. They were
  seated where there is a main temple dedicated to One
  Water Reeds Sprouting. From there departed a great
  priest. He left in a canoe, rowing towards the shore and
  headed toward a cave in the large hill. There in the
  cave was Huizilopochtil, our Lord God. He had his altar
  among the branches. He spoke and spoke and spoke
  about the need to set out, on the need to leave and
  the need to find another place to live. And all this,
  what we are told, is drawn, it is reported, occurred in
  the year one flint.
              The Unknown:
• What is the name of the island? Researchers
  are not sure.
• Theory 1: The Aztecs left a place called One
  Water Reed Sprouting. The place might have
  the same name as the temple.
• Theory 2: The Aztecs left Aztlan. There is
  some alphabetic writing that is barely legible
  on the codex that indicates this might be the
   Decoding the rest of the codex:
• Students sit in groups with laminated sections of
  the codex attempt to decode what their section
  of the codex is saying and to translate it into a
• Each will also be given a “dictionary” handout
  with some, but not all, of the elements from their
  codex sheet on it. Students will then share their
  attempts at interpretation and be given the
  official interpretation to compare. What were
  they right about and wrong about? And why?
Boturini Codex: Page 2
Boturini Codex: Sheet 3
Boturini Codex: Sheet 5
Boturini Codex: Sheet 14
  Part 2: Challenges of Interpretation
• 1. What makes a text difficult to interpret?
  • Missing pieces of information (only having one
    sheet of the codex)
  • Lack of knowledge (knowing what some of the
    symbols mean but not all of them)
  • One’s own assumptions (placing your own ideas
    and experiences on to someone else’s)
            Historical Examples of
1. Los Danzantes: These
   large carved stone
   monuments in Oaxaca
   were long thought to be
   dancing figures, but are
   are now seen to clearly
   represent tortured,
   sacrificed war prisoners,
   some identified by name,
   and may depict leaders of
   competing centers and
   villages captured by
   Monte Albán.
Historical Examples of Misinterpretation
2. The myth that
   indigenous people
   thought the Spanish
   conquistadors were
   “gods.” The word
   “tueles” was used to
   refer to the Spaniards
   and can mean “gods” but
   can also mean godlike,
   fancy, powerful or large.
    The Body Ritual of the Nacirema
Sample from the text:
The focal point of the shrine is a box or chest which is built into
  the wall. In this chest are kept the many charms and magical
  potions without which no native believes he could live. These
  preparations are secured from a variety of specialized
  practitioners. The most powerful of these are the medicine
  men, whose assistance must be rewarded with substantial
  gifts. However, the medicine men do not provide the curative
  potions for their clients, but decide what the ingredients
  should be and then write them down in an ancient and secret
  language. This writing is understood only by the medicine men
  and by the herbalists who, for another gift, provide the
  required charm.
    Part 3: Museum of the Future
• Scenario: You are an anthropologist in the year
  3511 who must prepare an artifact to be
  displayed in the upcoming exhibit “The Ancient
  City of New York.” You must provide basic
  information about your artifact, a detailed
  description and an interpretation of the artifact’s
  use and significance in the world of 21st century
  New York City. You must prepare your
  information on a plaque or “gloss” that will
  accompany your artifact on display at the
  opening of the exhibit in 2 days.
Possible Artifacts
         To Close the Unit:
Students view each other’s artifacts and
glosses during a classroom exhibit opening.
After the “reception” there is a reflection
session where students discuss important
observations they made of each other’s work
and the ways in which the act of
interpretation tells as much about the
interpreter as the object being interpreted.

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