The traditions of indigenous Mesoamerican literature extend back to the oldest-attested forms of early writing in the Mesoamerican region, which date from around the mid-1st millennium BCE. Many of the pre-Columbian cultures of Mesoamerica are known to have been literate societies, who produced a number of Mesoamerican writing systems of varying degrees of complexity and completeness. Mesoamerican writing systems arose independently from other writing systems in the world, and their development represents one of the very few such origins in the history of writing. The conquistadors brought their distinctive cultural creations, in the form of books, from Europe to the New World which further influenced native literature.
Indigenous peoples, also known as First peoples, Aboriginal peoples or Native peoples, are ethnic groups who are the original owners and caretakers of a given region, in contrast to groups that have settled, occupied or colonized the area more recently. Groups are usually described as indigenous when they maintain traditions or other aspects of an early culture that is associated with a given region. Not all indigenous peoples share this characteristic, as many have adopted substantial elements of a colonizing culture, such as dress, religion or language. Indigenous peoples may be settled in a given region (sedentary) or exhibit a nomadic lifestyle across a large territory, but they are generally historically associated with a specific territory on which they depend. Indigenous societies are found in every inhabited climate zone and continent of the world.
Writing is a medium of human communication that represents language with signs and symbols. For languages that utilize a writing system, inscriptions can complement spoken language by creating a durable version of speech that can be stored for future reference or transmitted across distance. Writing, in other words, is not a language, but a tool used to make languages readable. Within a language system, writing relies on many of the same structures as speech, such as vocabulary, grammar, and semantics, with the added dependency of a system of signs or symbols. The result of the activity of writing is called a text, and the interpreter or activator of this text is called a reader.
Mesoamerica is a historical region and cultural area in North America. It extends from approximately central Mexico through Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and northern Costa Rica, and within this region pre-Columbian societies flourished before the Spanish colonization of the Americas. In the 16th century, European diseases like smallpox and measles caused the deaths of upwards of 90% of the indigenous people. It is one of five areas in the world where ancient civilization arose independently, and the second in the Americas along with Norte Chico (Caral-Supe) in present-day Peru, in the northern coastal region.
The literature and texts created by indigenous Mesoamericans are the earliest-known from the Americas for primarily two reasons: Firstly the fact that the native populations of Mesoamerica were the first to enter into intensive contact with Europeans, assuring that many samples of Mesoamerican literature have been documented in surviving and intelligible forms. Secondly, the long tradition of Mesoamerican writing which undoubtedly contributed to the native Mesoamericans readily embracing the Latin alphabet of the Spaniards and creating many literary works written in it during the first centuries after the Spanish conquest of Mexico. This article summarizes current knowledge about indigenous Mesoamerican literatures in its broadest sense and describe it categorized by its literary contents and social functions.
The Latin or Roman alphabet is the writing system originally used by the ancient Romans to write the Latin language.
When defining literature in its broadest possible sense, so to include all products of "literacy", its function in a literate community ought to be the focus of analysis. The following are known genres and functions of indigenous Mesoamerican literatures.
Three major subjects of Mesoamerican literatures can be identified:
Aztec codices are books written by pre-Columbian and colonial-era Nahuas in pictorial and/or alphabetic form. These codices provide some of the best primary sources for Aztec culture. The pre-Columbian codices mostly do not in fact use the codex form and are, or originally were, long folded sheets. These sheets were typically made from stretched deerskin or from the fibers of the agave plant. They also differ from European books in that they mostly consist of images and pictograms; they were not meant to symbolize spoken or written narratives.
Geoffrey Sampson distinguishes between two kinds of writing. One kind of writing he calls 'semasiographical', this covers kinds of pictorial or ideographic writing that is not necessarily connected to phonetic language but can be read in different languages, this kind of writing is for example used in roadsigns which can be read in any language. The other kind of writing is phonetic writing called by Sampson 'glottographic' writing and which represents the sounds and words of languages and allows accurate linguistic readings of a text that is the same at every reading.In Mesoamerica the two types were not distinguished, and so writing, drawing, and making pictures were seen as closely related if not identical concepts. In both the Mayan and Aztec languages there is one word for writing and drawing ((tlàcuiloa in Nahuatl and tz'iib' in Classic Maya)) Pictures are sometimes read phonetically and texts meant to be read are sometimes very pictorial in nature. This makes it difficult for modern day scholars to distinguish between whether an inscription in a Mesoamerican script represents spoken language or is to be interpreted as a descriptive drawing. The only Mesoamerican people known without doubt to have developed a completely glottographic or phonetic script is the Maya, and even the Mayan script is largely pictorial and often shows fuzzy boundaries between images and text. Scholars disagree on the phoneticity of other Mesoamerican scripts and iconographic styles, but many show use of the Rebus principle and a highly conventionalised set of symbols.
Geoffrey Sampson is Professor of Natural Language Computing in the Department of Informatics, University of Sussex. He produces annotation standards for compiling corpora (databases) of ordinary usage of the English language. These involve specifying whether usage is spoken or written, and other demographic information, like age, gender and occupation. His work has been applied in automatic language-understanding software, and in writing-skills training. He has also analysed Ronald Coase's "theory of the firm" and the economic and political implications of e-business.
The Mayan languages form a language family spoken in Mesoamerica and northern Central America. Mayan languages are spoken by at least 6 million Maya peoples, primarily in Guatemala, Mexico, Belize and Honduras. In 1996, Guatemala formally recognized 21 Mayan languages by name, and Mexico recognizes eight more within its territory.
Classic Maya is the oldest historically attested member of the Mayan language family. It is the main language documented in the pre-Columbian inscriptions of the Classic Era Maya civilization.
The monumental inscriptions were often historical records of the citystates: Famous examples include:
Naj Tunich is a natural cave which was used by the Maya as a ritual pilgrimage site during the Classic period. Artifacts show that the cave was accessed primarily during the Early Classic period with deposits becoming rarer during the Late Classic period. The fame of the cave, however, rests on its long Late Classic hieroglyphic texts as well as on a considerable number of painted scenes and figures.
Yaxchilan is an ancient Maya city located on the bank of the Usumacinta River in the state of Chiapas, Mexico. In the Late Classic Period Yaxchilan was one of the most powerful Maya states along the course of the Usumacinta River, with Piedras Negras as its major rival. Architectural styles in subordinate sites in the Usumacinta region demonstrate clear differences that mark a clear boundary between the two kingdoms.
Quiriguá is an ancient Maya archaeological site in the department of Izabal in south-eastern Guatemala. It is a medium-sized site covering approximately 3 square kilometres (1.2 sq mi) along the lower Motagua River, with the ceremonial center about 1 km (0.6 mi) from the north bank. During the Maya Classic Period (AD 200–900), Quiriguá was situated at the juncture of several important trade routes. The site was occupied by 200, construction on the acropolis had begun by about 550, and an explosion of grander construction started in the 8th century. All construction had halted by about 850, except for a brief period of reoccupation in the Early Postclassic. Quiriguá shares its architectural and sculptural styles with the nearby Classic Period city of Copán, with whose history it is closely entwined.
The function of these kinds of historical inscriptions also served to consoliate the power of the rulers who used them also as a kind of propaganda testimonies to their power. Most commonly monumental hieroglyphocal texts describe:
The epigrapher David Stuart writes about the differences in content between the monumental hieroglyphical texts of Yaxchilan and those of Copan:
Most codices date from the colonial era, with only a few surviving from the prehispanic era. A number of Precolumbian codices written on amate paper with gesso coating remain today.
Amate is a type of bark paper that has been manufactured in Mexico since the precontact times. It was used primarily to create codices.
Some common household objects of ceramics or bone and adornments of jade have been found with inscriptions. For example, drinking vessels with the inscription saying "The Cacao drinking cup of X" or similar.
The largest part of the Mesoamerican literature today known has been fixed in writing after the Spanish conquest. Both Europeans and Mayans began writing down local oral tradition using the Latin alphabet to write in indigenous languages shortly after the conquest. Many of those Europeans were friars and priests who in trying to convert the natives to Christianity. They translated Catholic catechisms and confessional manuals and acquired a good grasp of the indigenous languages and often even composed grammars and dictionaries of the indigenous languages. These early grammars of native languages systematized the reading and writing of indigenous languages in their own time and help us understand them today.
The most widely known early grammars and dictionaries are of the Aztec language, Nahuatl. Famous examples are the works written by Alonso de Molina and Andrés de Olmos. But also Mayan and other Mesoamerican languages have early grammars and dictionaries, some of very high quality.
The introduction of the Latin alphabet and the elaboration of conventions for writing indigenous languages allowed for the subsequent creation of a wide range of texts. And indigenous writers took advantage of the new techniques to document their own history and tradition in the new writing, while monks kept on extending literacy in the indigenous population. This tradition lasted only a few centuries however and due to royal decrees about Spanish being the only language of the Spanish empire by the mid-1700s most indigenous languages were left without a living tradition for writing. Oral literature, however, kept being transmitted to this day in many indigenous languages and began to be collected by ethnologists in the beginnings of the 20th century, however without promoting native language literacy in the communities in which they worked. It is an important and extremely difficult job in the Mesoamerica of today, and what that is only beginning to be undertaken, to return native language literacy to the indigenous peoples. But during the first post-conquest centuries a large number of texts in indigenous Mesoamerican languages were generated.
Many of the post-conquest texts are historical accounts, either in the form of annals recounting year by year the events of a people or city-state often based on pictorial documents or oral accounts of aged community members. But also sometimes personalized literary accounts of the life of a people or state and almost always incorporating both mythical material and actual history. There was no formal distinction between the two in Mesoamerica. Sometimes as in the case of the Mayan Chilam Balam books historical accounts also incorporated prophetical material, a kind of history in advance.
The post-conquest situation of the indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica also required them to learn to navigate in a complex new administrative system. In order to obtain any kinds of favorable positions pleas and petitions had to be made to the new authorities and land possessions and heritages had to be proven. This resulted in a large corpus of administrative literature in indigenous languages, because documents were often written in the native language first and later translated into Spanish. Historians of central Mexican peoples draw heavily on native-language documentation, most notably Charles Gibson in The Aztecs Under Spanish Rule (1964)and James Lockhart in The Nahuas After the Conquest (1992). The emphasis on native-language documentation for indigenous history has been emphasized in the New Philology.
These administrative documents include a large number of:
In the late sixteenth-century the Spanish crown sought systematic information about indigenous settlements now part of the Spanish Empire. A questionnaire was drawn up and local Spanish officials gathered information from the indigenous towns under their administration, using local elites as their informants. Some reports were a few pages, such as that from Culhuacan, while some major indigenous polities, such as Tlaxcala, took the opportunity to give a detailed description of their prehispanic history and participation in the Spanish conquest of central Mexico. Most geographical accounts include a native map of the settlement. The Relaciones geográficas were produced because colonial officials complied with royal instructions, but their content was generated by indigenous informants or authors.
The most extensively researched Mesoamerican indigenous literature is the literature containing mythological and legendary narratives. The styles of these books is often very poetic and appealing to modern aesthetic senses both because of the poetic language and its "mystical", exotic contents. It is also of interest to establish intertextuality between cultures. While many do include actual historic events the mythological texts can often be distinguished by focusing on claiming a mythical source to power by tracing the lineage of a people to some ancient source of power.
Some famous collections of Aztec poetry have been conserved. Although written in the late 16th century they are believed to be fairly representative of the actual style of poetry used in precolumbian times. Many of the poems are attributed to named Aztec rulers such as Nezahualcoyotl. Because the poems were transcribed at a later date, scholars dispute whether these are the actual authors. Many of the mythical and historical texts also have poetic qualities.
Not all specimens of native literature can be readily classified. A prime example of this are the Yucatec Mayan Books of Chilam Balam, mentioned above for their historical content, but also containing treatises on medical lore, astrology, etc. Although clearly belonging to Maya literature, they are profoundly syncretic in nature.
The Aztecs were a Mesoamerican culture that flourished in central Mexico in the post-classic period from 1300 to 1521. The Aztec peoples included different ethnic groups of central Mexico, particularly those groups who spoke the Nahuatl language and who dominated large parts of Mesoamerica from the 14th to the 16th centuries. Aztec culture was organized into city-states (altepetl), some of which joined to form alliances, political confederations, or empires. The Aztec Empire was a confederation of three city-states established in 1427: Tenochtitlan, city-state of the Mexica or Tenochca; Texcoco; and Tlacopan, previously part of the Tepanec empire, whose dominant power was Azcapotzalco. Although the term Aztecs is often narrowly restricted to the Mexica of Tenochtitlan, it is also broadly used to refer to Nahua polities or peoples of central Mexico in the prehispanic era, as well as the Spanish colonial era (1521–1821). The definitions of Aztec and Aztecs have long been the topic of scholarly discussion ever since German scientist Alexander von Humboldt established its common usage in the early nineteenth century.
The Nahuas are a group of indigenous people of Mexico and El Salvador. The Nahua comprise the largest indigenous group in Mexico and second largest group in El Salvador.
Mesoamerican chronology divides the history of prehispanic Mesoamerica into several periods: the Paleo-Indian, the Archaic, the Preclassic or Formative (2500 BCE–250 CE), the Classic (250–900 CE), and the Postclassic (900–1521 CE), Colonial (1521–1821), and Postcolonial (1821–present). The periodization of Mesoamerica is based on archaeological, ethnohistorical, and modern cultural anthropology research. The endeavor to create cultural histories of Mesoamerica dates to the early twentieth century, with ongoing work by archeologists, ethnohistorians, historians, and cultural anthropologists.
Miguel León-Portilla was a Mexican anthropologist and historian.
Mesoamerican languages are the languages indigenous to the Mesoamerican cultural area, which covers southern Mexico, all of Guatemala and Belize and parts of Honduras and El Salvador and Nicaragua. The area is characterized by extensive linguistic diversity containing several hundred different languages and seven major language families. Mesoamerica is also an area of high linguistic diffusion in that long-term interaction among speakers of different languages through several millennia has resulted in the convergence of certain linguistic traits across disparate language families. The Mesoamerican sprachbund is commonly referred to as the Mesoamerican Linguistic Area.
Maya codices are folding books written by the pre-Columbian Maya civilization in Maya hieroglyphic script on Mesoamerican bark paper. The folding books are the products of professional scribes working under the patronage of deities such as the Tonsured Maize God and the Howler Monkey Gods. Most of the codices were destroyed by conquistadors and Catholic priests in the 16th century. The codices have been named for the cities where they eventually settled. The Dresden codex is generally considered the most important of the few that survive.
Diego Durán was a Dominican friar best known for his authorship of one of the earliest Western books on the history and culture of the Aztecs, The History of the Indies of New Spain, a book that was much criticised in his lifetime for helping the "heathen" maintain their culture.
The Aztecs were a Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican people of central Mexico in the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries. They called themselves Mexica.
The Aubin Codex is a textual and pictorial history of the Aztecs from their departure from Aztlán through the Spanish conquest to the early Spanish colonial period from 1519-1521, ending in 1608. Consisting of 81 leaves, the codex is written in alphabetic Nahuatl, the language of the Aztec empire, on European paper.
History of Tlaxcala is an illustrated codex written by and under the supervision of Diego Muñoz Camargo in the years leading up to 1585. The manuscript highlights the religious, cultural, and military history of the Tlaxcaltec people, in particular focusing on the post-conquest aspects.
Mesoamerica, along with Mesopotamia and China, is among the three known places in the world where writing has thought to have developed independently. 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. 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.
Aztec or Nahuatl writing is pre-Columbian writing system that combines ideographic writing with Nahuatl specific phonetic logograms and syllabic signs which was used in central Mexico by the Nahua people. The majority of Aztec codices were burned by the Spanish clergy following the conquest of Mesoamerica. Remaining Aztec codices such as Codex Mendoza, Codex Borbonicus, and Codex Osuna were written on deer hide and plant fiber.
Mixtec writing originated as a logographic writing system during the Post-Classic period in Mesoamerican history. Records of genealogy, historic events, and myths are found in the pre-Columbian Mixtec codices. The arrival of Europeans in 1520 AD caused changes in form, style, and the function of the Mixtec writings. Today these codices and other Mixtec writings are used as a source of ethnographic, linguistic, and historical information for scholars, and help to preserve the identity of the Mixtec people as migration and globalization introduce new cultural influences.
Arthur James Outram Anderson was an American anthropologist specializing in Aztec culture and translator of the Nahuatl language.
New Philology generally refers to a branch of Mexican ethnohistory and philology that uses colonial-era native language texts written by Indians to construct history from the indigenous point of view. The name New Philology was coined by James Lockhart to describe work that he and his doctoral students and scholarly collaborators in history, anthropology, and linguistics had pursued since the mid-1970s. Lockhart published a great many essays elaborating on the concept and content of the New Philology and Matthew Restall published a description of it in the Latin American Research Review. The techniques of the New Philology have also been applied in other disciplines such as European medieval studies.
Quetzalcoatl is a deity in Mesoamerican culture and literature whose name comes from the Nahuatl language and means "feathered serpent" or "Quetzal-feathered Serpent". The earliest known documentation of the worship of a Feathered Serpent occurs in Teotihuacan in the first century BC or first century AD. That period lies within the Late Preclassic to Early Classic period of Mesoamerican chronology; veneration of the figure appears to have spread throughout Mesoamerica by the Late Classic period (600–900 AD).
The pre-Columbian history of the territory now comprising contemporary Mexico is known through the work of archaeologists and epigraphers, and through the accounts of the conquistadores, clergymen, and indigenous chroniclers of the immediate post-conquest period. While relatively few documents of the Mixtec and Aztec cultures of the Post-Classic period survived the Spanish conquest, more progress has been made in the area of Mayan archaeology and epigraphy.
Nahuatl, known historically as Aztec, is a language or group of languages of the Uto-Aztecan language family. Varieties of Nahuatl are spoken by about 1.7 million Nahua peoples, most of whom live in central Mexico.
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