In this work, covering four major preconquest Mesoamerican writing traditions, anthropologist Joyce Marcus emphasizes the accomplishments of past great scholars and chastises their successors for too readily accepting as factual history the texts they can now decipher so well. After a relatively brief introduction to older writing systems in a worldwide context, the core of the book consists of chapters comparing the writing of the preconquest Nahuas, Mixtecs, Zapotecs, and Maya as to eight themes: calendrics, rewriting of history, naming patterns of entities and of nobles, royal marriages, apotheosis of ancestors, succession of rulers, and warfare.
Key to appreciating this impressive volume is to recognize that it is not exactly a study of Mesoamerican writing systems but, as a statement on the dust jacket more forthrightly says, a study of the role of the writing systems. The author convincingly demonstrates that in the entire macroregion, writing was manipulated to the advantage of rulers of states, with little regard for factual truth and none for balance. Marcus’ main point can be taken as resoundingly established; few of us historians, however, would ever have doubted it, and I find it hard to believe that the recent epigraphers themselves are as naive as they are depicted here.
To the author, “history” means literal, objective facts about external events—for more and more of us, a small proportion of what we take to be the scope of our discipline. The actual history of the writing systems, their techniques, their genres, the subtleties of their message, the many, many aspects that transcend the superficially dominant political-military side, are all marginal to the present study. Nevertheless, someone hungry for knowledge of these matters will gain a great deal from this volume because of its myriad, clearly redrawn reproductions of glyphs and texts, accompanied by some translations and explanations, even if all too brief and rudimentary. One learns also from the work’s extraordinary scope and its method of presenting comparable phenomena from the four traditions in close conjuction.
Operating on this scale has disadvantages as well as advantages. The author herself says that the time has passed when one should work with pictographic writing without understanding well the language it is representing. No one, perhaps, can be expected to know all four of the rather exotic languages or language groups involved here. The sections on Nahuatl contain numerous slips and obviously little depth of knowledge. For example, in the phrase donya maria moyeztica Ecatepec, moyeztica means “who is at (Ecatepec),” but the author takes the word for a name with a glyphic representation (p. 202). A whole list of words from the dictionary is adduced as proof of the importance of quetzal feathers in Nahua political vocabulary; but though all of the items contain the letters q-u-e-t-z-a-l, they are based on a verb meaning “to name, constitute” and have nothing to do with birds or feathers (p. 310). I see nothing comparable in the sections on Maya writing, but then I know Maya far less well and have hardly any acquaintance with Mixtec or Zapotec. I do, however, distrust the method of relying on contextless entries in postconquest dictionaries compiled by Spanish friars, rather than on texts produced by indigenous people.
As a historian of postconquest Spanish America, I notice several things about the work that to me seem general to the author’s whole discipline, including the most recent epigraphers. Elite planning and manipulation, which was definitely there, are taken for the whole explanation. The strong ethnic feelings and local ethnic states, of which the elites were but a manifestation, are virtually ignored. (I do find here some tantalizing partial insights; for example, that an indigenous unit included its whole territory and people equally, not being concentrated in one particular spot or settlement [p. 189]. But such observations have no consistency, and the opposite is said as often.) The visual artifacts are treated as a complete communication system when in actuality they were but one part of a unified, two-track system, in which oral presentation was at least equally essential. (At some points the author speaks as though two sets of lore and experts existed rather than one). And the growing sophistication in interpreting pictographic texts is not matched when it comes to postconquest alphabetic texts. The deeds and machinations of Tlacaellel of Tenochtitlán—a figure bloated by the chroniclers in much the same manner that many of the pictographs depicted kings—are swallowed whole.
Overall, though, the book can be of great value to ethnohistorians of the post-conquest period as we extend our interests to more indigenous languages and explore more deeply the continuities across the conquest break.