Pre-Columbian Literature The 8 Main Characteristics

Sherman Hoover

The characteristics of pre-Columbian literature are all those elements that have personified the art of letters in America prior to the arrival of the Spanish. 

Pre-Columbian or Mesoamerican literature dates back to the oldest forms of early writing in the Mesoamerican region, dating back to the middle of the first millennium BC.

Many of the pre-Columbian cultures of Mesoamerica are known to have been literate societies, producing various writing systems of varying degrees of complexity and integrity. Mesoamerican writing systems arose independently of other writing systems in the world.

Literature and texts created by indigenous Mesoamericans are the earliest known to the Americas for two reasons.

First, the fact that the native populations of Mesoamerica were the first to come into intense contact with Europeans, ensuring that many samples of Mesoamerican literature have been documented..

Second, the long tradition of pre-Columbian writing that undoubtedly contributed to the easy acceptance of the Latin alphabet from the Spanish by native Mesoamericans and created many literary works written during the first centuries after the Spanish conquest of Mexico..

Three main themes of the pre-Columbian literature can be identified:

  • Religion, time and astronomy: Mesoamerican civilizations shared an interest in tracking time by observing celestial bodies and performing religious rituals. In particular, true pre-Columbian literature, such as the Mayan and Aztec codices, deals with calendrical and astronomical information, as well as rituals related to the passage of time..
  • History, power and legacy: Another large part of pre-Columbian literature is carved in monumental structures such as stelae, altars, and temples. This type of literature usually documents power and heritage, remembering victories, the accession to the government, dedications of monuments or marriages between royal lineages..
  • Mythical and fictional genres: Mainly present in post-conquest versions, but often based on oral or pictorial traditions, the mythical and narrative literature of Mesoamerica is very rich.

Although the concept of literature came from the colonizing powers of the American continent, at present there are works that can be understood as part of a set that would be pre-Columbian literature.

Many consider the classification of pre-Columbian literature as a generalist, since many of the indigenous cultures were handwritten, while others maintained a writing system by means of logograms.

More generally, indigenous cultures are very different from each other and although they have common characteristics, divergences can separate them and cause them to confront each other irreconcilably..

Others, however, understand as a historical need to group pre-Columbian cultures and their artistic creations in a definition, within which is literature..

Characteristics to understand pre-Columbian literature

1- Conception of writing

Today, most languages ​​(including indigenous languages) are written using an alphabet, assigning sounds to each of the letters.

The assignment of an alphabet to indigenous languages ​​is recent. However, in pre-Columbian times civilizations such as the Mayan had a broad writing system, formed by logograms through a syllabary that they reflected on walls.

The Incas, for their part, did not have a similar system. Although there is no consensus, the researchers consider that the way in which they recorded was through quipu, which were a series of small strings with which more than eight million combinations could be obtained..

2- Subsequent registration

The records that we know today and that are studied as works of pre-Columbian literature were obtained thanks to later records made mainly by priests and members of the Catholic Church..

Most of these clergymen worked with native Indians who acted as translators. For example, in the case of Popol Vuh, It was transcribed by Fray Francisco Jiménez in the 17th century..

However, the Mayan codices are originally written by them, because they had already discovered the paper.

The work of the researchers in this case has been to determine the meaning of their content..

3- Influence of religion

Most of the transcribed texts that today stand as the most famous in pre-Columbian literature tell religious stories, emphasizing indigenous deities and creation legends of the world and of men..

The magical and spiritual has great influence on this literature.

4- Role of war

Physical strength was another of the characteristics that mediated the life of pre-Columbian cultures.

The men in these civilizations used to dedicate themselves to war, which was frequent due to the problems that arose between different groups or even of an internal nature..

Some of the pre-Columbian literary works show stories of warriors, conquests and military victories, to exalt the work carried out by the troops..

5- Record of astronomical and astrological results

Pre-Columbian civilizations had vast knowledge about the stars and their influence on Earth, especially in relation to agriculture and the sea..

In this way, they developed lunar and solar calendars and created clocks and different mechanisms for measuring time..

These types of conclusions were also recorded in works that were later written by the indigenous people or later transcribed by the colonizers..

6- Shortage of known works

In the first instance, several indigenous groups decided to hide their works from the Spanish colonizers, thus losing much of the cultural heritage registered at that time..

However, the clerics undertook the task of fully investigating the indigenous people, so that the beliefs and experiences of the indigenous people quickly began to be established, without this precisely implying the creation of a literary work..

The problem arose when the evangelization and catechization of the natives was imposed. The imposition of Christianity on the aborigines prevented the beliefs from being maintained.

Consequently, as the generations died, all the potential literary content was reduced to a few copies that usually identify the cultures to which they belong and that today are preserved with suspicion..

7- Presence of poetry

Within pre-Columbian literature, poetry broke through with great force. The records are very scarce because it was information transmitted by oral tradition, but over time they could be compiled.

One of the civilizations with the longest poetic tradition was the Inca. Pre-Columbian poetry exalted the different pillars that supported the different indigenous civilizations.

Many poems were dedicated to warriors, gods, seasons of the year, among many other reasons. They could be grouped in the form of songs to be sung to the deities.

To a lesser extent, there were personal reflections and analysis of the inner being. Poetry was manifested in public, either in the form of a song or a declamation in different acts in which indigenous society made life.

8- Use of mnemonics

When there are human social groups that have not developed the ability to translate their ideas into something imperishable that does not require constant remembrance, mnemonics are often used as a way to make them last over time..

Mnemonics are memorization techniques based on the association of different mental ideas.

In the case of indigenous people, especially those belonging to non-graphic peoples, the use of these techniques was institutionalized, which is why they used to make structures that rhymed or were easy to remember. He had a great influence on the durability of poetry.


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