statuette (as it became known) made its way to the United States and in 1903 to the Smithsonian. At first, archaeologists thought that the statuette marks were Mayan; southern Mexico lies at the heart of the Mayan civilization, where Mayan dialects are still spoken today. But an observer was not sure. Charles Pickering Bowditch, a Boston businessman, philanthropist and scholar of Mesoamerica who was on the faculty of the Peabody Museum at Harvard, compared the hieroglyphics with a catalog of maps he had collected from all Mayan characters then available. “I find no real resemblance between the two types of glyphs,” he wrote in 1907. Bowditch argued that the statuette spoke an unknown native language – a language with no clear parentage. In the 1960s, researchers hypothesized that it was “Epi-Olmec,” a late language of the Olmec people, the oldest known Mesoamerican civilization, which preceded the heyday of the Mayan civilization. about 1,000 years old. This hypothesis is still subject to debate.
In 1993, John Justeson and Terrence Kaufman, both linguists, proposed a possible solution to the mystery. Aided by the handful of objects with the same handwriting unearthed since Bowditch’s time, they came up with a translation – the first modern reading, they said, of the Epi-Olmec. In addition, the translation of the glyphs by Justeson and Kaufman seemed to reveal the age of the statuette. Chemical dating was not helpful; sampling the object’s substrate would simply give the Stone Age, not the engravings. Both scholars have argued that the writing, in its entirety, gives a year in Epi-Olmec – especially 162 AD, dating it to the middle period of Epi-Olmec society.
The surviving examples of Epi-Olmecs are extremely rare; only 12 known objects bear his writing. Given this lack of evidence, some researchers argue that Justeson and Kaufman cannot claim to have translated the language until other artifacts are revealed; others even say that calling the script “Epi-Olmec” is premature. Yet the Justeson and Kaufman translation helped researchers decode other known objects that bear readable Epi-Olmecs. In 2019, Kaufman and Justeson convincingly argued that a poem about an artifact, which in their translation describes the transit of Venus, corresponds to past astronomical events. In a fascinating way, their reading bears strong similarities to the current languages of the Mixe and Zoquean peoples of southern Mexico. If the translation is correct, it suggests that the Epi-Olmecs spoke a form of Zoquean, a branch of the Mixe-Zoquean family. It also suggests that a descendant of the Epi-Olmec language is still spoken today. As a result, the Tuxtla statuette has been crucial in helping to elucidate a previously impenetrable ancient language and to connect modern indigenous cultures with a linguistic past that was believed to be lost.
It makes sense that the Epi-Olmec will survive in modern languages. Jane Walsh, anthropologist emeritus of the Smithsonian, notes that the Olmecs are considered by many to be “the mother culture” of various later Mesoamerican civilizations, from southern Mexico to Costa Rica. Indeed, anyone who has eaten a taco has appreciated their heritage: the Olmecs were among the first to mix corn with lime water, a critical step in nixtamalization, the process of making tortillas.
The Mexican government officially recognizes 68 indigenous languages within its borders, spoken by millions of people. Yet, having survived centuries of Spanish-speaking colonization and domination, many of these languages, including Mixe and Zoquean, are in critical danger of extinction. Yásnaya Elena Aguilar Gil, indigenous Ayuujk writer and linguist from Mexico and native speaker of Mixe, has written poignantly about efforts to keep indigenous Mexican languages alive, in what she calls a “struggle for language rights.” . Across Mexico, indigenous peoples are campaigning for public schools to teach indigenous languages.
Today, in Justeson and Kaufman’s tale, the statuette of Tuxtla is the keystone of this struggle. Imagine that a small statuette is one of the few known objects where the Latin language has survived. This artifact would become invaluable to anyone studying the history of modern languages derived from Latin, such as Spanish, Italian, and French. The Tuxtla statuette is a remnant of a sophisticated culture that endured conquest and assimilation, a legacy that indigenous peoples strive to keep alive.
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