Explore the Codex Zouche-Nuttall: A Rare, Accordion-Folded Pre-Columbian Manuscript

In the past two decades, the Latin Amer­i­can world has seen a tremen­dous resur­gence of indige­nous lan­guage study and lit­er­a­ture. Some Mex­i­can writ­ers are “ditch­ing Span­ish,” Dora Ballew writes, for “Zapotec, Tzotzil, Mayan and oth­er lan­guages spo­ken long before Euro­peans washed up on the shores of what is now Mex­i­co.” Large antholo­gies of such lit­er­a­ture have been pub­lished since 2001. The move is not a recov­ery of lost lan­guages and cul­tures, but an affir­ma­tion of “the num­ber of peo­ple flu­ent in both an indige­nous lan­guage and Span­ish,” schol­ars and writ­ers Earl and Sylvia Shorris explain.

“At least sev­er­al mil­lion” indige­nous lan­guage speak­ers in Mex­i­co alone ensure that “lit­er­a­ture has ample place in which to flour­ish.” Despite the incur­sions of both the Aztecs, then the Span­ish, speak­ers of Mix­tec, for exam­ple, sur­vived and now “inhab­it a vast ter­ri­to­ry of broad moun­tain ranges and small val­leys that stretch across the mod­ern-day states of Puebla, Guer­rero and Oax­a­ca,” writes Dr. Manuel A. Her­mann Lejarazu.

An expert on Mix­tec codices, Lejarazu ties the con­tem­po­rary cul­ture of Mix­tec speak­ing peo­ple back to the Post­clas­sic past, “a peri­od between the tenth and six­teenth cen­turies when polit­i­cal cen­tres pro­lif­er­at­ed, fill­ing the vac­u­um left after the col­lapse of large cities estab­lished in pre­ced­ing cen­turies.”

Much of the lit­tle that is known of the indige­nous Mix­tec lit­er­ary cul­ture comes from the Codex Zouche-Nut­tall, one of only a hand­ful of pre-Columbian man­u­scripts in exis­tence. Made of deer skin, the codex “con­tains two nar­ra­tives,” the British Muse­um notes. “One side of the doc­u­ment relates the his­to­ry of impor­tant cen­tres in the Mix­tec region, while the oth­er, start­ing at the oppo­site end, records the geneal­o­gy, mar­riages and polit­i­cal and mil­i­tary feats of the Mix­tec ruler, Eight Deer Jaguar-Claw.”

Although fin­ished around 1556, the pic­to­graph­ic fold­ing man­u­script “is con­sid­ered to be of pre-His­pan­ic ori­gin,” Lejarazu writes, “since it pre­serves a strong indige­nous tra­di­tion in its pic­to­graph­ic tech­niques, with no demon­stra­ble Euro­pean influ­ence.” The codex was first dis­cov­ered in 1854 in a Domini­can monastery in Flo­rence. It’s unclear exact­ly how and when it arrived in Europe, but sev­er­al such codices “reached the Old World as gifts or as part of the doc­u­ments sub­mit­ted to Span­ish courts that han­dled legal mat­ters in the Indies.”

Though sev­ered from its ori­gins, the Codex Zouche-Nut­tall is now freely avail­able online in a scanned 1902 fac­sim­i­le edi­tion at the British Muse­um and the Inter­net Archive. You can learn much more about these incred­i­bly rare doc­u­ments from Lejarazu’s arti­cle and Robert Lloyd Williams’ Com­plete Codex Zouche-Nutall, which explains how the pic­to­graph­ic record func­tions like a sto­ry­board, or out­line, for a com­plex nar­ra­tive tra­di­tion that tied Mix­tec rulers to the gods, to each oth­er, and to the past and future.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Native Lands: An Inter­ac­tive Map Reveals the Indige­nous Lands on Which Mod­ern Nations Were Built

Speak­ing in Whis­tles: The Whis­tled Lan­guage of Oax­a­ca, Mex­i­co

Peru­vian Schol­ar Writes & Defends the First The­sis Writ­ten in Quechua, the Main Lan­guage of the Incan Empire

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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