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Quick Facts
LocationAmericas > Mesoamerica
Time1200 CE to 1600 CE

The Mixtecs were one of the most influential ethnic groups to emerge in Mesoamerica during the Post-Classic. Never an united nation, the Mixtecs waged war and forged alliances among themselves as well as with other peoples in their vicinity. They also produced beautiful manuscripts and great metal work, and influenced the international artistic style used from Central Mexico to Yucatan.

During the Classic period, the Mixtecs lived in hilltop settlements of northwestern Oaxaca, a fact which is reflected in their name in their own language, Ñuudzahui, meaning "People of the Rain". Later, during the Post-Classic, the Mixtecs slowly moved into adjacent valleys and then into the great Valley of Oaxaca. This time of expansion is no doubt recorded in a large number of deerskin manuscripts, only eight of which have survived. Nevertheless, these manuscripts allow us to trace Mixtec history from 1550 CE back to 940 CE, deeper in time than any other Mesoamerican culture except the Maya.

Even though surrounded by more textual writing systems, the Mixtecs opted to write in a more minimalistic manner. Mixtec "writing" is really an amalgam of written signs and pictures. In particular, pictorial scenes would depict historical events such as birth, marriage, coronation, war, and death, while written glyphs would record the date of the event and identify the people and places involved.

The above example came from the Codex Zouche-Nuttall. It depicts a group of warriors conquering a town (an event noted by the warriors' drawn weapons and the arrow piercing the hill). You might notice glyphs with dots above each of the participants in the scene. The logical conclusion is that the glyphs are names, but in fact these are calendrical day signs. The reason for this is that among Mixtec nobles, a person's name is often his or her birthday.

Like other Mesoamerican cultures, the Mixtec used a 260-day sacred calendar. A day is a combination of a number, called the coefficient, and a day sign. The coefficient ranges from 1 to 13, while the day sign is any of the following 20 glyphs:

Unlike the Western system of months and days, the Mesoamerican sacred calendar moves the coefficient AND the day sign in parallel. You start with 1 Crocodile, then you move ahead both the number and the day sign, going to 2 Wind on the next day. You keep going until you end up with 13 Reed, then you rewind the numbers but continue with the day sign, hence yielding 1 Jaguar. When you've exhausted all day signs and you're at 7 Flower, you rewind the day signs to Crocodile but continue with the number, giving you 8 Crocodile.

Another interesting note is that Mixtecs did not use the bar to represent the quantity 5 in manuscripts, but instead used five dots. However, on monumental inscriptions, they did use the bar notation instead of five dots (see below).

The Mixtecs also had a 365-day solar calendar, but they did not record dates in this calendar. Instead, they interlocked the solar and the sacred calendars into the Calendar Round, a 52-year cycle commonly used in Mesoamerica. (Here's the math: the smallest number divisible by both 365 and 260 is 18980, which is 52 years.) Historical events in Mixtec manuscripts and monuments are dated by a year in the Calendar Round and a day in the sacred calendar.

Like the sacred calendar days, years in the Calendar Round are also composed of a number and a year sign. The number ranges from 1 to 13, and there are 4 year signs (hence yielding 52 years). The year sign is always infixed inside a glyph that scholars call the AO sign because it looks the letters A and O entertwined.

The four year signs are taken from the sacred calendar. They are rabbit, reed, flint, and house. The following are examples of year signs with coefficients:

Recall how I said that it is possible to trace Mixtec history back to 940 CE? The reason why this is feasible is because various post-Conquest records give the dates in both Mixtec and Gregorian calendars, thus allowing scholars to convert from one system to the other. For example, in the following picture, the Mixtec year 10 Reed is inscribed along side the Gregorian year of 1555 in this panel from the Church of Cuilapan.

The previous photograph was graciously given for use on this page by Prof Roger Moore. To see other pictures of the Church of Cuilapan, click here.

Since Pre-Columbian Mixtec documents are mainly concerned with histories, they record historical events such as royal births, wars and battles, royal marriages, forging of alliances, pilgrimages, and death of rulers. In addition to the calendrical signs used for dating events and naming individuals, the Mixtecs used a combination of conventionalized pictures as well as glyphs to illustrate the type and nature of the event. An example is the conquest scene presented near the beginning of this page. Another example is the wedding scene, usually shown as as two individuals of opposite sex facing each other and sitting on jaguar-pelt chairs, as illustrated by this example from the Codex Nuttall recording the marriage of the legendary Mixtec king 8 Deer "Tiger Claw" of Tilantongo to Lady 12 Snake on the day 13 Snake of the year 13 Reed (1051 CE).

This arrangement of the bride and groom is a purely pictorial convention, with no connection to the language. This means that no idiom or phrase in the Mixtec language describing two people sitting facing each other is a metaphor for marriage. However, the cup of chocolate held by Lady 13 Snake may represent the expression ynodzehua, which means "dowry" in Mixtec, where the root dzehua means "chocolate". Chocolate or cacao was one of the most expensive and luxurious products in Mesoamerica, and cacao beans were used as currency. It is no surprise the word for dowry would be based on chocolate.

The Mixtecs used a conventional set of signs to represent different kinds of geographical landmarks and locations, since all Mixtec place names are compounds of two or more Mixtec words. However, in some cases, certain words might be difficult to represent graphically because they are abstract ideas, a specific type of a general object, or simply just hard to draw. The Mixtec scribes got around this problem by substituting the hard-to-depict words with words that sound similar but easier to draw. In fact, the Mixtec language is tonal, and is full of words that have the exact same sound, but different tones. The following place names will illustrate how this works.

Yucu Dzaa is translated as "Hill of the Bird", as evident by its Aztec (and modern) name Tututepec. To prevent interpreting the bird as a vulture or an eagle, a chin in joined in with the head of bird, as the Mixtec word dzaa means a "beardless chin".

Yucu Yoo means "Hill of the Moon", which is represented by the moon sign at the center of the hill. Interestingly, however, there are reeds standing on the top of the hill. In Mixtec, "reed" is also yoo, so it is possible that the reed reinforces the reading of Yucu Yoo. Another possibility is that this sign is actually bilingual, since its Aztec name Acatepec means "Hill of the Reed".

Chiyo Ca'nu is composed of two words, chiyo which means "foundation", and ca'nu which could mean "great" or "bent". (In modern Mixtec, cá'nu with a high tone on the first syllable and a medium tone on the last syllable means "great", whereas ca'nù with a medium tone on the first syllable and a low tone at the ending syllable means "bent" or "broken") Its Aztec name is Teozacoalco, which unambiguously translates as "Great Foundation". Since the word "great" is awkward to draw, the Mixtec scribe represented Chiyo Ca'nu with the usual glyph for a town but instead of a straight rectangle, the town glyph is bent. To further reinforce the point, there is a little man on the bent part of the glyph breaking it with a stone.

And finally, the sign for Yodzo Coo, or "Plain of the Snake" is a snake on feathers. This is equivalent to the town's Aztec name, Coixtlahuaca (which you can actually see from the Spanish gloss on top which says "esta es la yglesia de cuestlahuaca"). Since both "plain" and "feathers" are yodzo in Mixtec, the glyph for "plain" is conveniently a mantle of feathers. The same rectangular mat of feathers is also used to denote yodzo in other place names, and is one of the standard geographical glyphs.

Unfortunately only a fraction of Mixtec geographical names have been identified. The great Mexican archaeologist Alfonso Caso pioneered the study of Mixtec writing and "deciphered" many glyphs by working with Colonial-era documents written in both Mixtec and Spanish. Hopefully future generations of scholars will identify more and more place names in the pre-Columbian Mixtec manuscripts and thus greatly extend the knowledge of the history of the Mixtec people.

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