In Mesoamerica, some pre-Hispanic civilizations developed writing skills, while others did not, without such systems assuming a hierarchical or dominant role. There are three civilizations identified today, of which manuscripts have been preserved: Aztec, Maya and Mixteco. The latter is where the largest amount of documentation has been kept. Let us study this handwriting and its achievement.

For further general information on the Mixtec civilization, please refer to the following article: « la-civilisation-mixteque« .


The beginning:

According to Mixtec historians, the art of writing and telling stories is divine in origin. It is the primordial cultural hero Lord 9 Wind « feathered snake » who invented writing and singing. He extended his knowledge by travelling and founding Mixtec cultural institutions and shrines, thus contributing to the history of his people. Finding the right words to express beauty, suspense, glory or despair was therefore a matter of divine inspiration, and recording the past was primarily about transmitting ancient values to future generations. The stories covered the history of the Mixtec people, the genealogy of the royal dynasties from mythical original couples, war or matrimonial alliances, but also religious beliefs, rites and ceremonies.

Handwriting was reserved for professionals chosen first and foremost for their artistic skills. They remained anonymous, never signing their works, which were sponsored by the ruling class and meant for the community or the nobles (gifts for alliances). Writing was mainly used on paper. It is commonly referred to as « codex », a Latin word meaning « manuscript book », used by the settlers on their arrival in the New World when they discovered these manuscripts. Mixtec codices are made of deerskin, considered sacred, and are horizontal in their layout. They were kept accordion-folded in places similar to libraries.

Codex Nuttall, mixtèque, British Museum
Nuttall Codex, British Museum, London


The writing system:

Pictographic manuscripts are so called because they are written using drawings subject to a complex codification made up of well-defined and elaborat stylistic conventions. The system is based on three elements combined:

  • Iconographic: some facts are represented by descriptive images.

Fileuse, codex Vindobonensis, p. 9.


  • Example: A woman spinning, Vindobonensis codex, p. 9.


  • Ideographic: representation of an idea or concept by a symbol.

Codex Nuttall, p. 50. Toponyme basique. 'Ville du roi'


  • Example: a city is depicted by a type of mountain. Here: basic, mountain-shaped toponym, the symbol of a city. The name is the name of a city literally translated from the Mixtec language as « king’s city », and a king is represented inside. Codex Nuttall, p. 50.


  • Syllabic: sounds are represented by syllables according to the system of rebuses. Especially used for names of people and places.
  • Example: Coixtlahuaca = name of a city meaning « valley of serpents », which is written as a representation of a valley (an extended rectangle) and the serpents in this rectangle.

Zigzag (boustrophedon) reading is done from a starting point, from left to right or right to left, along vertical or horizontal red lines.

Boustrophedon - zigzag


Its role:

Writing was considered very differently during pre-Hispanic times compared to our time. The manuscripts were not written for the purpose of personal reading but as a tradition of communication, which was reflected both in oral literature and in visual arts. The manuscripts were often exhibited and read on special events, so the people, as a custom, often knew how to recognise basic information, such as the names of gods or rulers.

The content of the codices gives us information about the historical characters; their lifestyle, their acts, their way of leading their people. They were not literary books but instruments of power; their purpose was to be read to the people on the important events which brought the community together; it was obvious, then, that no detail of their content should be left to chance. We thus see a form of propaganda appearing in these codices.



Some of the codices were written before the conquest, others after, so they reflected the changes resulting from the arrival of the Spaniards in their lives. Most of the pre-Hispanic codices were damaged by the effects of time or destroyed by missionaries who saw works of the devil in them. Among the colonial works, there was still Mixtec writing but it was associated with its translation into the Latin alphabet or was even translated into Spanish. In addition, the colonial designs showed the influence of the European style, which blended with the traditional Mixtec style.

Today, there are still eleven pre-Hispanic Mixtec codices left. This represents an essential source of information to understand the meaning of this writing which, indeed, provides us with lot of data about the political, social, economic and cultural conception of the Mesoamerican world on pre-conquest era. However, even if almost all these codices are preserved in Europe today, it is not a coincidence but the evidence of a European interest, which also has much to say about our own culture.


Author: Estelle Pautret

Translator: Laurane Mandin


For further documentation:

  • BOONE, Elizabeth Hill and Walter MIGNOLO, Writing without Words: Alternative Literacies in Mesoamerica and the Andes. Duke University Press, Durham, 1994.
  • JANSEN, Maarten and Laura van BROEKHOVEN, Mixtec Writing and Society, Escritura de Ñuu Dzaui. KNAW Press, Amsterdam, 2008.
  • PAUTRET, Estelle, La perception des codex mésoaméricains en Europe au XVIe siècle. Mémoire de Master 2 en Histoire de l’art, sous la direction de Brigitte Faugère. Paris, Université de Paris 1 – Panthéon-Sorbonne, 2015.
  • SMITH, Mary Elizabeth, Picture Writing from Ancient Southern Mexico. Mixtec Place Signs and Maps. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1973.

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