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A page from the Madrid Codex

A page from the Madrid Codex

It’s possible that the Maya learned how to write from the Olmec, but there aren’t any definite examples of early Olmec writing, so it might also have been the Maya who invented writing in the Americas. Like most other writing systems, Maya writing is a syllabary, not an alphabet (compare Sumerian cuneiform or Egyptian hieroglyphics or Chinese.)

Maya writing is not very hard to read once you get some practice. You can begin by reading the numbers. One dot means one, two dots mean two, and so on. A bar means five, and two bars on top of each other mean ten.

In the page of writing here, can you find the numbers 4, 6, 10, 11, and 13?

Now you can begin to read words. The main root part of each word is in the middle of the picture, and then prefixes and suffixes like un- or -ing are added on around the corners and edges.

Maya people used their writing mainly to carve inscriptions on their stone buildings telling who made the building and when.

When the Maya were losing power to the Aztec, the Aztec also learned how to write from the Maya. So Aztec writing is closely related to Maya writing.

Learn by doing: can you find some numbers in Maya books?
More about Aztec writing
More about the Maya people

Bibliography and further reading about Maya writing:

   

Aztec
Inca
Later South America
Native Americans
American History
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