An Introduction to Mesoamerican Writing

The Decipherment of Mesoamerican Writing

Jade statuette of an Olmec wrestler
Carved rock sculpture of a dancing figure
Detail of carved monument showing glyphic inscription

Ancient Maya writing did not exist in a vacuum. Other Mesoamerican peoples used writing systems with similar features to represent their own languages. The exact nature of the connection between these systems is still disputed. Some scholars theorize that the Olmec — earliest of the major Mesoamerican civilizations — developed their own system, which was later borrowed and adapted by the Zapotec and Maya; others disagree, arguing that Olmec civilization ran its course too early to have contributed significantly to later writing systems. Even though its origin is uncertain, we know that Maya writing was in widespread use during what is known as the Classic Period (200-900 CE).

Jade statuette of an Olmec wrestler, Ulua Valley, Cortes, Honduras

Most of the ancient writing that survives today was engraved in stone or painted onto pottery, but paper manuscripts existed too.

Danzante 52 rock sculpture, Monte Alban, Oaxaca, Mexico

Unlike alphabets, where each symbol represents a single sound, Maya writing is logosyllabic: a symbol can represent a syllable or even a full word. The order in which to read these symbols is essential, and it wasn’t always the same. In the earliest texts, writing was arranged vertically into columns that would be read one at a time, top to bottom. Later, these columns were grouped into pairs and began to be read together, with the reader zigzagging from left to right down the double column.

Detail of a carved monument with a glyphic inscription, Tonina, Chiapas, Mexico

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