The first Spaniards in America tried to talk to the natives with gestures, and this could lead to misunderstandings. Of the more quirky from Andes I can mention that a Spaniard asked: ¿Cómo te llama? Meaning what is it called? And pointing to the animal. The Indian caught the last word of the question ¿llama? and repeated it, whereby the beast had got its name: llama.
Another Spaniard pointed to plants up on a slope and got the answer pata, which for the Quechua-speaking Indian meant up. Potatoes grew there, and so these tubers allegedly got their Spanish name papas. Other Spaniards, however, had previously in the Caribbean heard Tainos call the sweet potato batata.
In Mexico the most sacred House of God was called Teocalli, so Spanish theologians assumed a connection between Nahuatl-speaking Indians and Greeks who called God Theos.
A much later curious language blunder: Early in the 20th century a competition for a equestrian statue was issued in Peru. In the written material it was stated that it should be provided with a flame – meant the flame of enlightment – which in Spanish also is called llama. The Spanish sculptor, Mariano Benlliure, who won the task, took it for granted that the hero in Peru besides his horse should have the Peruvian animal, the llama, which as mentioned, is called llama. So since 1921, Perus liberator, the Argentine San Martin, in front has had a woman wearing a little llama on her head. The beast must have shocked the richly decorated notabilities with accompanying ladies who, at the centenary of independence in a fashionabel square in Lima to the sound of military brassmusic, were invited to the heroic disclosure. Oh, uh, what does that farm animal do in front of our liberator?
The language of the Aztecs, Nahuatl, contained derivative words, mixed words, and a welldeveloped grammar which the highplaced persons were taught in schools, corrected and extended so they could speak properly to the gods or impress visiting chieftains.
The language of the Incas was originally called runa simi, meaning peoples language, but the Spaniards gave the language a new name: Quechua. Both Quechua and Aymara – today the two most common of the aboriginal languages of Peru – there are many words to express the verb to narrate, which is seen as a confirmation of the importance of storytelling in Andean way of life.
Both in Mexico and in Peru, there were other languages than those prevalent that could be called languages of the rulers; these other languages had been spoken by tribes which had been subject to Aztec or Inca rulers. After the Spanish conquest, they disappeared faster than Nahuatl, Quechua and Aymara and thus suffered the same fate as many of the worlds languages: they died.
It wasn’t just the many aboriginal languages which lost ground and disappeared; it was also the underlying thoughts that was driven out and forgotten, repressed and abandoned. Admittedly, Spaniards wrote down some oral traditions of some Indians, so some of their culture was preserved, but the original Indian way of thinking was marked or completely displaced by the Spanish.
Patrick Johansson Keraudren, French-Mexican language-scholar, summarizes the peculiarity of the Aztec Nahuatl: Essentially, what ‘was’ and what ‘should have been’ have become fused in a mythical melting pot, forging a deep-rooted indigenous version of the truth.
And Gail P. Silverman, Peruvian anthropologist, recalls the general problem of anthropologists: One of the principal errors used when studying the incipient writing of the Incas, is the premise that Quechua speaking natives perceive their world in the same way as the anthropologist.
Broadly different life- and world concepts give difficulties to outsiders. Therefore Indian myths both have been marked by mythtelling Indians and subsequently by myth interpretive Spaniards. Admittedly, changes are basic conditions of oral tradition within a civilization, but even when scholars from outside have tried to find the authentic TRUTH and remove ‘errors’ in written sourcematerial, it is extremely difficult to avoid putting ones own mark. For what must scholars remove and what layers should they leave?
Communication is more than writing and more than just transferring specific informations. Communication is also a social process to confirm a community. Spoken words, songs, rituals and dances can be stored – remembered in and by the body – so they do not disappear as soon as they are pronounced or performed; the storage takes place deeper than an intellectual understanding of the spoken in the brain. But over time, bodily memories can change and the original version cannot be saved and transmitted – under no circumstances after death of the concerned – as identical to a digital copy. Thus, it can be very difficult precisely to clarify what the ‘original’ has been.
Such is the cultural development, nothing human is immutable!
Communication with characters occurred long before what we call writing. A line in the sand could tell a lot, and the same happened to a stone next to traces of animals that were worth hunting. Other prescriptive communications could be established in stone, ceramics, metal and textiles. Later we immediately can experience these signs as permanent aesthetics in the form of urban planning, utensils and cultural objects. As outsiders, we may enjoy the creation, but for those who created the signs, staging and images could express more than a thousand words.
Some civilizations developed their bartertrade; earlier the parties had been able to see each others goods before they swopped but now they established far trading. Thus they needed to communicate over distances without moving themselves or their goods. Therefore the communication of the merchants developed so that it both could be transported and be understood in the same way by the sender and the recipient. Thus numbers and writing occured. Marks were printed in clayplates, dried and transported in the Middle East 4,000 BCE. The Sumerian cuneiform is considered a crucial leap in the development of civilization. About 3400 BCE a kind of phonetic transcription arose. From a graphic character, for example, a cow had referred to the sound [cow]; a sound that could be included in other words that nothing had to do with cows.
There began the Middle Eastern history of writing, which became important to our civilization.
Some scholars insist that true writing is based on phonetic transcription, that sounds of the language can be reproduced graphically. Preferably, the utterance should be understood in the same way. The European currency is written €, but is pronounced differently: [ey.ro] in German and [ju.rö] in English. The pronunciation is different, although there is hardly any greater doubt about the significance of the pronunciation.
The decisive factor is whether a written text – no matter how it is enshrined – can be read by others than those who in advance know what is written. That there is a common understanding of the writing principle. The written must be more than a memory aid for the one who has written, for example-. Does this loopsign mean that you have done the job, that you need to were a necktie or that soldiers or breasts should be supported?
Aztecs and Incas wrote in their own way. Aztecs had codices and Incas khipus, but researchers who today will read codices respectively khipus have been faced with different challenges that have had implications for research.
Aztec characters on skins, stones, bones and ceramics are usually found near or in graves, so it has been possible to interpret them with the support of nearby finds and from Spanish firsthand reports. Some signs and pictures seemed recognizable, appeared as pictograms or resembled rebuses and immediately appealed to the imagination. And then, the US-American scholars interest in Mexico and Central America early had been great because scholars could ‘just’ drive to the area or sail down there.
More difficult it has been to research the majestic but headache-triggering heights of South America. The difficulty arose because khipus of the Incas – and other Andes cultures – are knots on a string that have been found as bundles of cords in archives, churches and graves, apparently completely detached from what they described, without helping associations, they are ‘just’ leashes, reminds most of knitting – after a cat has played with it. But the individual knot is in itself without content and cannot be ‘translated’. A knot is a knot.
In a database of museums and private collections, a total of 923 khipus are registered. Khipus can be described as cords or strings with sidestrings of different materials and colors with knots in several sidesystems.
For us, khipu seems far more confusing than a digital code consisting of 1’s and 0’s, because they are constructed by IT experts, whom we can ask.
The difficulty of breaking the codes of the Incas today is that we do not know the construction or can ask the designers. For this reason, scholars must first carefully describe khipus systematically in order to understand what might be significant.
Some scholars try to incorporate patterns from now livings textiles in their interpretation. Others argue that it is unthinkable that Incas codes may have survived the dominance of Catholic culture.
Thus, there are objective differences between the Aztec picture-writings and the writings of the Incas with knots. They are contributory to that scholars have reached further in the interpretation of the writings of the Central American cultures than of the Andes cultures.
Both Aztec codices and Inca khipus have an age of more than half a millennium. But much earlier people in what we call Mexico and Peru have put signs that must have represented something, that constituted a communication that was independent of the presence of the one who put the signs.
Ten thousand years old cave paintings as well as petroglyphs, scratches on cliffs of animals and human-look-a-likes, have been found in America, and they can contain spells and narratives. Who made them is not known; the exploration is insufficient and characterized by speculations about signs becoming writing.
The allegedly oldest Indian text was found in 1999 at the village of Cascajal close to the Olmec-center San Lorenzo in the Mexican state of Veracruz. On a stone slab, 62 signs of rows are scratched, allegedly originating from the Olmec-culture about 1,000 BCE. Yet neither archaeologists nor linguists have been able to decipher the signs.
Other characters have been found in Mexico and Peru.
In the small town of Pucará on Perus plateau north of Lake Titicaca, about 500 BCE a civilization emerged which worshipped the puma, that may have been both a beloved and feared creature, possibly representing fertility and the force of lightning. A large stone figure, a catcrowned human being with the head of another in front, has been found. The crowned has a large mouth, large eyes and large ears. On the back of this man two rows of faces are scratched. Is it a count of predecessors or rulers victims? Are the variations in the faces significant? Are the characters beginning of writing?
In the southern desert of Peru, the nazca-lines – best seen from the air – still provide material for wild theories: were they characters made 2,000 years ago, and who should see, read, and understand these several hundred feet long drawings of spider, hummingbird and monkey?
In northern Peru, black-and-white-spotted beans have been found and they are believed to have been Mochicas writings – probably about 1,500 years ago. But how to read a handful of beans? Which bean to start with? That kind of beans are also assumed to have been used in the Paracas-culture, that is more than 2,000 years ago, but also in the time of the Incas, 500 years ago. In Peru also lines painted on wooden poles are found which have been compared with khipus.
In Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador – the Maya area – tall stelas, upright limestones, with texts from around our year zero, as well as scratching on bones, paintings on walls and scholars believed that Mayans had only recorded numbers, but in the
20th century, the Mayan language code was broken so that scholars could understand the texts and interpret it as their myths and historiography.
The today so frequently reproduced Aztec calendarstone – on mugs, towels, T-shirts etc. – was probably carved in 1479 and by the Spaniards probably hastily – yes, yes, it weighs 23 tons – hidden in the underground where the cathedral in Mexico City was constructed after the upheaval in 1521.
Now the pagan stone had gone!
But the stone was rediscovered 250 years later. It was drawn, described and interpreted so that scholars believe they can read the calendar signs. Including the year the stone was cut.
Today, Central American Indian women express some common features in their clothing: same material, color, length, and patterns, but still there is posibilities for their very own history, social and marital status in their blouses, huipiles. The variations can be so minimal that one has to compare carefully or know a lot about that woman in order to notice the differences.
Similar can be experienced in todays Peru. Clothing should not just keep the body warm but in fine patterns contain the individual womans story – and reflect the individuals mood when she woved the fabric, women explain.
Half a millennium ago, the suits of the ruling Incas were not only designed with dashing patterns to give the ruler pondus: the patterns must have been meaningful. Scholars are still trying to decipher these patterns.
A crucial question is whether patterns can be interpreted by anyone else than those who have created them, and that those patterns are understood in the same way. Can patterns on buildings, textiles, drinking cups and others inspire scholars when they try to interprete other texts? Can they give access to Indian writing, and hence myths and stories without our own cultural filters? Yes, many questions that are important for the interpretation of Indian cultures.
(pp. 33-40 in volume 1, reproduced without notes and illustrations):
THE WORLD ACCORDING TO AZTECS AND INCAS: MYTHS AND STORIES FROM MEXICO AND PERU. Edited, translated, retold and commented by Mikael Witte. Volume 1 + Volume 2
476 pages + 540 pages. Richly illustrated in colors
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