Isthmian Script

Isthmian script is a Mesoamerican writing system that is similar to the Maya writing system, but slightly earlier. It is found only in one area of Mesoamerica, around the Isthmus of Tehuantepec–hence the name “Isthmian.” Some people believe that it is related to the Olmec writing system, and could represent a connection between Olmec and Maya scripts Although this is unlikely, there are a lot of unknown questions about Isthmian like this one. In today’s post, we’ll talk briefly about this writing system. The accompanying podcast episode for this week will go more in detail about the debates regarding the decipherment of Isthmian. 

What do we know about Isthmian script?

In 1986, archaeologists stumbled upon a slab of incised stone that contained the first examples of what is known today as the Isthmian script. This stone, known today as La Mojarra Stela 1, shows a portrait of a ruler holding up an offering. Surrounding this portrait is a lengthy text written in the Isthmian writing system. Completely distinct from other known writing systems in the area, but clearly related to them, Isthmian is still under careful study and hot debate among Mesoamerican epigraphers. 

La Mojarra Stela 1. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

What are the sources of this script? 

To date, scholars are only aware of three main bodies of Isthmian text, found on the Tuxtla Statuette, La Mojarra Stela 1, and a stone mask known as the “Teo Mask.” The first two of these objects (the Tuxtla Statuette and La Mojarra Stela 1) were found in the region of Mexico’s Isthmus of Tehuantepec, and give the script its name. The Teo Mask, unfortunately, is in a private collection and lacks archaeological context; therefore it is impossible to say with certainty whether this object comes from the same area (although it is likely). 

The Tuxtla Statuette, one of the sources of Isthmian script. You can see the script written up the center of this figurine. Image source: Smithsonian Learning Lab.

The Big Debate: Has Isthmian been deciphered? 

The biggest question asked by students of Mesoamerican writing systems is whether  Isthmian script has been deciphered. The short answer is not yet– but maybe it will be in the future. 

The decipherment of Isthmian script has been fraught with academic debate at the highest levels. In 1993, John Justeson and Terry Kaufman published an article in Science magazine detailing their claim to have deciphered Isthmian. Based on the assumption that the language was a form of proto-Mixe Zoquean, and claiming that they could understand the signs based on what they “appeared” to represent, the authors proceeded with a decipherment of what they estimate as 80% of the available signs. 

This claim was disputed by Stephen Houston and Michael Coe in 2000, when they published an article in Mexicon refuting the previous claims, based on the discovery of a new text (the Teo Mask) that did not yield to Justeson and Kaufman’s deciphered values. They also criticize Justeson and Kaufman for not providing what they deemed sufficient information regarding their proposed decipherment, and for claiming to be able to interpret a sign based on its iconic transparency alone, which is extremely unlikely for Mesoamerican scripts (and most pictorial scripts in general). However, Houston and Coe did agree with the classification of Isthmian as a logosyllabic script (as are all other known Mesoamerican scripts), and accept that it most likely represents a variant of the Mixe-Zoquean language family.

Most recently, Justeson and Kaufman have stepped up again with a new article restating their claims and reinforcing them with new arguments. Responding to Coe and Houston’s criticism, they provide a detailed explanation of their methods, as well as proposed readings and translations of the decipherment. However, their decipherment still does not convince many Mesoamerican epigraphers. 

For a more detailed analysis of Isthmian script and the difficulties behind its decipherment, check out this week’s podcast episode, where we’ll discuss these debates in more detail and talk about how to decipher a script!

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