A popular and predominant approach in the studies on writing systems is that writing is created to reflect spoken language, and therefore that the only “true” and “correct” writing system is the alphabet. Nothing could be further from the truth. A deeply rooted approach in the study of writing developed in the so-called Western culture is beginning to be replaced by research on broadly understood graphic communication systems. These systems are not aimed at faithfully codifying speech, but rather reflect mental structures and are understandable for the recipient, regardless of the language the person uses.
Due to such approach to the research on writing, many graphic communication systems, especially those developed outside Europe, were excluded from literacy studies. Thus, the aim of our project is to develop a universal research methodology for Native American writing systems, which will enable a better understanding of the methods of communication and knowledge transfer among American indigenous communities. Therefore, the 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 Amerindian graphic systems are to be analyzed on the basis of common methodological principles in five subprojects that will examine respectively:
- multilayered graphic communication system of the Mixtec and divinatory codices from the Central Mexico,
- pre-Hispanic graphic system from Tiwanaku and Inca from the Andes,
- tio-tio writing and graphic communication systems in material culture among the Carib-speaking Yukpa living in the Isthmo-Colombian area,
- the logic of graphic/visual communication in maize divination system of the Ayöök ethnic group in contemporary Mexico and
- formal and structural ways of codifying meaning in pre-Hispanic rock art from the northern Venezuela.
The starting point for the research are the theses of Carlo Severi (developed for the study of writing systems from the South American Lowlands) and Roy Harris (concerning general theory of writing), as well as the work of our team carried out so far, which showed that writing systems can be multidimensional. Therefore, our project is interdisciplinary, combining theories and methods used in various fields of science: linguistics, iconography and rock art studies, ethnography, cultural anthropology, semantics, and cognitive linguistics. Within each subproject, the following steps will be taken:
- preparation of a formal description of the given system;
- specification of how the system encodes and conveys the meaning;
- determining how the meaning depends on the context, and, consequently, how the context influences the codification.
Our project not only brings together researchers from two countries, but also combines specialist knowledge and methods developed for the study of pre-Hispanic and contemporary graphic systems and various cultural regions of America, and consequently also of academic traditions. Thanks to the cooperation of all members of the project, it is possible to constantly exchange ideas, observations and criticism necessary in scientific work thereby guaranteeing a high level of research. This will enable participation in the global discussion on the traditional division of societies into oral and literate, as well as on the general theory of writing.
Araceli Rojas Martínez Gracida studied Anthropology and Archaeology in Mexico. In 2007, she won a position to conduct a PhD research hosted by the University of Leiden, the Netherlands.
Christiane Clados is Research Associate at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology at Philipps University Marburg where she has been teaching since 2012.
Karolina Juszczyk – a PhD candidate at the Faculty of Modern Languages at the University of Warsaw. Graduated Archaeology at the University of Warsaw.
Ernst Halbmayer is Professor of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the Institute for Social Anthropology and the Study of Religions, University of Marburg, Germany since 2008.
Anne Goletz is a PhD candidate at the Department of Cultural and Social Anthropology at the Philipps-Universität Marburg. In her doctoral project she studies the ways how people in Sokorpa, a Yukpa territory in the Serranía de Perijá in Northern Colombia, communicate (or avoid communicating) with their other-than-human surroundings.
Katarzyna Mikulska works as associate professor at the Institute for Iberian and Iberoamerican Studies, Faculty of Modern Languages, University of Warsaw. Her research interests are: theory of writing, native American and non-European scripts, pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican divinatory codices, pre-Hispanic religion of Central Mexico, divinatory systems and practices.
Justyna Kowalczyk-Kądziela is a PhD candidate at the Faculty of Modern Languages, University of Warsaw. Graduate of the Institute of Iberian and Ibero-American Studies where she obtained a master’s degree with a dissertation on the symbolism and ritual usage of the plant called malinalli in the pre-Hispanic Central Mexico.