Image - Zapotec Logo ZAPOTEC WRITING
Knowledge, Power, and Memory in Ancient Oaxaca
by Javier Urcid

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One of the earliest and most enduring scribal traditions in Mesoamerica developed in the central valleys of Oaxaca. Seemingly a logo-syllabic system since its inception, ca 600 BCE, several lines of evidence strongly suggest that the script encoded an ancient version of the contemporary Zapotecan family of languages. The early societal uses of writing that can be elicited from what survives in the archaeological record were to promote group identities in the genesis of widening social inequalities, differential access to power, political centralization, and urbanism.

Through time, the script spread over a wide portion of southwestern Mesoamerica, at times imposed by groups with hegemonic interests, or appropriated by aspiring elites to form part of increasingly wider networks of interaction. These processes led the script in a trajectory that minimized phoneticism (confined as time went on to renditions of personal names and toponyms) but maximized logophonic, semantic, and hence multilingual encoding. After some 1,500 years of use and somehow related to the political collapse of the paramount urban center of Monte Alban, the script lost prestige and slowly but steadily was replaced no later than the 10th century ACE by another form of writing which-although mostly unknown-must have eventually become the widespread phonic script known as "Mixteca-Puebla" (1250-1550 ACE).

Between the 4th and 8th centuries ACE, the script was one of several technologies of communication, together with ceramic effigy vessels and architectural backdrops for tombs and ancestor memorials, used by high-ranking corporate groups to inscribe in the collective memory genealogical records that traced descent of lineage members from prestigious founders as a legitimating strategy to perpetuate or to contest their privileged social standing. Claims to landed estates and specialized offices, like those of paramount rainmakers and sacrificers, were framed within an ideology that highlights a preoccupation with agricultural production and the biological reproduction within noble and royal houses.

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