Epi-Olmec language

Isthmian script
Type Undeciphered
(assumed to be logographic)
Languages Unknown (ISO 639-3 code: )
Time period Perhaps ca. 500 BCE to ca. 500 CE
ISO 15924 ,
Unicode alias

The Isthmian script is a very early Mesoamerican writing system in use in the area of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec from perhaps 500 BCE to 500 CE, although there is disagreement on these dates. It is also called the La Mojarra script and the Epi-Olmec script ('circa-Olmec script').

Isthmian script is structurally similar to the Maya script, and like Maya uses one set of characters to represent logograms (or word units) and a second set to represent syllables.[1]

Recovered Texts

The four most extensive Isthmian texts are those found on:

Other texts include:

  • A few Isthmian glyphs on four badly weathered stelae — 5, 6, 8, and probably 15 — at Cerro de las Mesas.
  • Approximately 23 glyphs on the O'Boyle "mask", a clay artifact in a private collection of unknown provenance.
  • A small number of glyphs on a pottery-sherd from Chiapa de Corzo. This sherd has been assigned the oldest date of any Isthmian script artifact: 450-300 BCE.[2]


In a 1993 paper, John Justeson and Terrence Kaufman proposed a partial decipherment of the Isthmian text found on the La Mojarra Stela, claiming that the language represented was a member of the Zoquean language family.[3] In 1997, the same two epigraphers published a second paper on Epi-Olmec writing, in which they further claimed that a newly discovered text-section from the stela had yielded readily to the decipherment-system that they had established earlier for the longer section of text.[4] This led to a Guggenheim Fellowship for their work, in 2003.

The following year, however, their interpretation of the La Mojarra text was disputed by Stephen D. Houston and Michael D. Coe, who had tried unsuccessfully to apply the Justeson-Kaufman decipherment-system to the Isthmian text on the back of the hitherto unknown Teotihuacan-style mask (which is of unknown provenance and is now in a private collection).[5]

The matter is still under discussion. In Lost Languages (2008) Andrew Robinson summarises the position as follows:

Overall, then, the case for the Justeson/Kaufman 'decipherment' of Isthmian is decidedly unproven and currently rests on shaky foundations ... What it needs, more urgently than some other 'decipherments' given its evident linguistic sophistication, is the discovery of a new text or texts as substantial as the one found at La Mojarra in 1986.[6]


See also


  • Brigham Young University press-release on behalf of Brigham Young University archaeologist Stephen Houston and Yale University professor emeritus Michael Coe disputing the Justeson-Kaufman findings.
  • Diehl, Richard A. (2004) The Olmecs: America's First Civilization, Thames & Hudson, London.
  • Houston, Stephen, and Michael Coe (2004) "Has Isthmian Writing Been Deciphered?", in Mexicon XXV:151-161.
  • Justeson, John S., and Terrence Kaufman (1993), "A Decipherment of Epi-Olmec Hieroglyphic Writing" in Science, Vol. 259, 19 March 1993, pp. 1703–11.
  • Justeson, John S., and Terrence Kaufman (1997) "A Newly Discovered Column in the Hieroglyphic Text on La Mojarra Stela 1: a Test of the Epi-Olmec Decipherment", Science, Vol. 277, 11 July 1997, pp. 207–10.
  • Justeson, John S., and Terrence Kaufman (2001) .
  • Lo, Lawrence; "Ancient Scripts.com (accessed January 2008).
  • Pérez de Lara, Jorge, and John Justeson "Photographic Documentation of Monuments with Epi-Olmec Script/Imagery", Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies (FAMSI).
  • Robinson, Andrew (2008) Lost Languages: The Enigma of the World's Undeciphered Scripts, Thames & Hudson, ISBN 978-0-500-51453-5.
  • Schuster, Angela M. H. (1997) "Epi-Olmec Decipherment" in Archaeology, online (accessed January 2008).

External links

  • "Photographic Documentation of Monuments with Epi-Olmec Script/Imagery" from the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc.
  • High resolution image of the Isthmian glyph table
  • Tuxtla Statuette photograph
  • Drawing of La Mojarra Stela 1
  • High resolution photo of the Coe/Huston Mask
This article was sourced from Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. World Heritage Encyclopedia content is assembled from numerous content providers, Open Access Publishing, and in compliance with The Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act (FASTR), Wikimedia Foundation, Inc., Public Library of Science, The Encyclopedia of Life, Open Book Publishers (OBP), PubMed, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health (NIH), U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, and USA.gov, which sources content from all federal, state, local, tribal, and territorial government publication portals (.gov, .mil, .edu). Funding for USA.gov and content contributors is made possible from the U.S. Congress, E-Government Act of 2002.
Crowd sourced content that is contributed to World Heritage Encyclopedia is peer reviewed and edited by our editorial staff to ensure quality scholarly research articles.
By using this site, you agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy. World Heritage Encyclopedia™ is a registered trademark of the World Public Library Association, a non-profit organization.