Tag Archives: history of writing

Zapotecs: The First Scribes

I am reading “Guns, Germs and Steel: A short history about everyone for the last 13,000 years” by Jared Diamond, which won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize. For anyone interested in the cultural, social and political history about human beings, this is THE book to read. Diamond asks the basic question, why were some societies able to develop the technology and wherewithal to conquer, lead, and dominate? Why did some remain hunter gatherers and others become farmers? Does it have to do with intelligence or something else? Diamond says it is the “something else.” It had to do with, he concludes, the identification of edible wild grains that could be cultivated and grown to sustain large populations. (Large populations being the key to technological prowess because they are able to grow enough food to feed specialists: warriors, ruling class, potters, scribes.) Most of these grains were native to Eurasia (the Fertile Crescent area). Another factor was the breeding of herding animals that could become sources for food and labor. The ancestors of goats, sheep, pigs, horses, and cows came from Eurasia. There were no animals on the North American continent that could be domesticated. The llama/alpaca from the Andes never made it north because of the geographic barriers. It was much easier for food and animals to cross the Eurasia continent on the same east-west axis latitude, than it was for animals and food to take hold on a north-south longitude (Africa and the Americas) where the climate differences can be extreme, limiting where seeds can be sown.  An alpaca would not do well crossing the Sonoran desert!

Diamond talks about whether food cultivation and sedentary farming, language and writing, technology development (stone to metal tools), developed independently in different parts of the world, or were developed in one part and transmitted to others.   The Sumerians of Mesopotamia developed writing in 3,000 B.C.   The other certain instance of independent writing origins in our human history, he says, comes from the Zapotecs in southern Mexico in around 600 B.C. where the earliest preserved script is partially deciphered.  There are about a dozen Mesoamerican scripts that are related to each other and the one that is best understood to date is from the Lowland Maya region.  The Zapotec language today is only an oral language and when it is written, for example, on the tri-lingual (Spanish, Zapotec, English) translations of the history keys at the Mitla, Dainzu and Yagul archeological sites, the Zapotec language is represented as a transliteration of the spoken words.  The Maya and Sumerian writing were organized on similar basic principles using both logograms and phonetic signs.  One might assume that the Zapotec language may have been similar, but it is not yet known.

I write this because it is one more discovery about the Oaxaca region that I find fascinating in the continuing commentary about culture, society, and life.  For a general review of the book, click here.