Isthmian script

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Isthmian script
(assumed to be logo-syllabic)
LanguagesUnknown (ISO639-3:xep)
Time period
Perhaps ca. 500 BCE to ca. 500 CE
Detail showing three columns of glyphs from La Mojarra Stela 1. The two right columns are Isthmian glyphs. The left column gives a Mesoamerican Long Count calendar date of, or 156 CE.

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 ('post-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[edit]

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]


  1. ^ Lo.
  2. ^ Pérez de Lara and Justeson.
  3. ^ Justeson and Kaufman (1993).
  4. ^ Justeson and Kaufman (1997).
  5. ^ Brigham Young University press-release. Despite the lack of provenance, Houston "is confident it [the mask text] was written sometime between A.D. 300 and 500" which would place it 150 to 250 years later than the La Mojarra stela.
  6. ^ Robinson, p. 263.

See also[edit]


  • 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?", 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) Epi-Olmec Hieroglyphic Writing and Texts.
  • Lo, Lawrence; "Epi-Olmec", at Ancient (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[edit]