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More than writing

Coding and decoding (in) Amerindian graphisms between Mexico and the Andes


A popular understanding of writing systems is that writing represents language. This deep-rooted approach to the research on writing systems is increasingly replaced by the exploration of more broadly defined notation systems that do not aim to encode language, but rather to generate meaning directly via visual codes understandable to the recipient regardless of the language he or she speaks. Also, in our everyday life a large part of knowledge is coded with such language-independent graphical systems. For instance, this is the case with traffic signs, chemical or mathematical formulas or the notation of music.

However, the classical approach to research on writing systems has led to the exclusion of many graphic communication systems, especially those developed outside Europe. The aim of this project is to develop a general methodology for the study of indigenous graphic communication systems, from Mayan and Aztec scripts to Andean communication systems, in order to understand how and in what ways indigenous communities communicate and encode knowledge using graphic signs. Therefore, the international German-Polish project aims to answer the question of how graphic communication systems convey meaning in the indigenous cultures of the Americas and how their understanding can contribute to the development of a general theory of writing.

Several different Amerindian graphic systems are to be analyzed on the basis of common methodological principles in five subprojects: 1) Mixtec codices of prehispanic Mexico, 2) the graphic communication system of the Tiwanaku culture in the Central Andes, 3) the tio-tio pictographic writing and further graphic communication systems of the Yukpa as well as their relation to other graphic systems in the Isthmo-colombian region, 4) the logic of the graphic/visual communication of "maize reading", a divination technique used in Mexico, and 5) formal and structural ways of coding meaning in prehispanic rock art from northern Venezuela.

This project is funded by the bilateral German-Polish Beethoven funding program of the German Research Foundation. The two subprojects located in Marburg, one on the Andean Tiwanaku and one on the isthmo-Columbian Yukpa, are being financed with about 800,000 Euros. The researchers from both countries thus contribute to the research of prehispanic and contemporary graphic communication systems of different cultural regions of the Americas. The goal is a redefinition of the general theory of writing and of the traditional division into oral and written societies based on the study of graphic communication systems of Amerindian America.

Contact: Prof. Dr. Ernst Halbmayer, PD Dr. Christiane Clados
Project Management:  Prof. Dr. Ernst Halbmayer (Philipps-Universität Marburg) & Dr. hab. Katarzyana Mikulska (University of Warsaw)

Subproject 2 Tiwanaku

Management: PD Dr. Christiane Clados
Student assistant: N.N.


Subproject 3 Yukpa

Management: Prof. Dr. Ernst Halbmayer
Scientific assistent: Anne Goletz M.A.
Student assistant: Sarah Schnitzer

Funding period: 2020-2023
Funding: German-Polish Beethoven funding program of the German Research Foundation (DFG) HA 5957/14-1