Zapotec decipherment on the horizon

Artdaily.org reports on a major new initiative to compile an epigraphic corpus and eventually (it is hoped) decipher the Zapotec hieroglyphic writing system. Unfortunately the article has been poorly translated, and I am at a loss as to the meaning of the sentence, “During that age, numeral system began, which would reach a great sophistication towards 7th century.” But that’s not the point. Most people who think of Mesoamerican writing think of the Maya hieroglyphs, or maybe, maybe the Aztec manuscript tradition. But the earliest inscriptions of the Valley of Oaxaca (the Zapotec homeland) are very early (500 BCE) – as early or earlier than any other Mesoamerican writing (with the exception of the enigmatic Cascajal Block) and (debatably) centuries earlier than any writing in the Maya languages. Monument 3 from San José Mogote is the earliest clear evidence for Mesoamerican numeration (used in the name ‘1 Earthquake’).

But we really don’t know as much as we would like about the Zapotec script (of which there are hundreds of examples dating from 500 BCE to 850 CE, although many are short or fragmentary). Our state of knowledge about the script is roughly where we were with Mayan writing forty years ago: we can read the numbers and the calendar, and we can ‘interpret’ a few other glyphs contextually, but that’s about it. There has been important recent work on Zapotec, particularly by Javier Urcid, whose excellent book, Zapotec Hieroglyphic Writing (2001), represents a major step forward, but it isn’t a decipherment nor does it claim to be. If a Zapotec decipherment or even a partial decipherment were to emerge from this new initiative, it would clearly help sort out many thorny phylogenetic issues in lowland Mesoamerican linguistic history and culture. But the script may not be highly phonetic, and certainly is not an excellent candidate for a Linear-B-Michael-Ventris style decipherment. Still, one can hope.

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