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A page from the Madrid Codex

Maya writing on a page from the Madrid Codex

Did the Maya invent writing themselves?

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. The earliest Maya writing is from about 200 or 300 BC, which is about the same time as the earliest Olmec and Zapotec writing. Like these, and like most other writing systems, Maya writing is a syllabary, not an alphabet (compare Sumerian cuneiform or Egyptian hieroglyphics or Chinese.)

Who were the Olmec?
And the Zapotec?
Who were the Maya?
More about Aztec writing
All our Central America articles

How did the Maya write numbers?

It 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?

Sumerian cuneiform
Egyptian hieroglyphs
Chinese oracle bones

How do these pictures make words?

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. From reading these inscriptions, we can see the names of Mayan rulers – including some women. Most of the inscriptions tell people about a war that the ruler fought, and the prisoners that they took. Or they honor the Maya gods.

More about the Maya gods

Maya meal - tamales with chili sauce are under the table.

A page from a Maya book showing a Maya meal – tamales with chili sauce are under the table. 

How did the Maya use writing?

Maya people probably used their writing mainly to carve inscriptions on their stone buildings telling who made the building and when. Maybe they also used it to write books and poetry, and to keep track of who had paid their taxes, or to write letters, but probably not very many people could write.

Europeans destroy books

European colonizers destroyed a lot of Maya writing, because it was not Christian and they thought it was dangerous demon writing. The colonizers also wanted to destroy Maya culture, to make Central America a European colony. But if there had been a ton of books written in the Maya language, the colonizers probably wouldn’t have been able to find and destroy all of it. So probably there weren’t that many people who knew how to write.

Charles V and European colonization
Mexico after colonization

From Maya writing to Aztec writing

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.

Who were the Aztec?

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 how the Maya wrote:


Later South America
Native Americans
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