Indigenous Hieroglyphic Language Traditions : Isthmian

Colonial Counterpoint: New World Texts as Sites of Encounter, 1492-1800

Lakumtun, the Maya word for stone stelae, were tools of political propaganda.  Stelae are tall, sculpted stones that ancient Mesoamericans erected in front of their palaces, pyramids, and other public buildings.  The stelae cult has its origins in the Olmec civilization.  Olmec people lived along the Mexican Gulf Coast between c. 1200 and 400 B.C.  Classic period Mayas (A.D. 200 – 900) subsequently erected hundreds of these inscribed stone monuments at sites across southern Mexico and northern Central America, taking the cult to its highest forms of artistic and scribal expression.  The display of noble actors and hieroglyphic texts contained on stelae served to both impress the viewer by their size and situation and to publicly extol, through carved texts and imagery, the ancestry and deeds of warrior-kings and their queens.

La Mojarra Stela 1 (Click on the image to see more detail)

Stela 1 from the site of La Mojarra, Veracruz, Mexico, is among the earliest extant examples of lengthy carved hieroglyphic texts and calendar dates to accompany a royal portraiture on a public monument.  Above is an image of the original rubbing made to scale by Merle Greene Robertson from the 4-ton monument.  The written portion consists of 21 columns of glyphic text composed using a distinctive Mesoamerican script called Isthmian that flourished between 150 B.C. and A.D. 450 and was likely derived from that used previously by Olmec scribes. Like other Mesoamerican hieroglyphic writing systems, Isthmian combined logographs representing whole words and concepts with phonetic glyphs that can indicate a reading in a particular language.

By the time the Spaniards arrived in the New World, the stelae cult had long disappeared.  Hieroglyphic writing, however, evolved and developed to serve the needs of later Mesoamerican societies.  An entirely different context for Maya writing is discussed in the next section which features the Codex Madrid, a Maya screenfold divinatory book that probably dates to the latter half of the fifteenth century and whose pages are filled with painted hieroglyphic texts, images, and calendrics.