Aztec Intellectual Achievements

Updated: Apr 21

A major study into the Aztecs’ hieroglyphic writing system suggests it was one of the most sophisticated scripts that humanity has ever produced.

Exactly 500 years after they were destroyed by the Spanish conquistadores, the long-lost intellectual foundations of Aztec civilisation are being rediscovered by a British anthropologist.

In 1521, the Spanish military presided over the destruction of three of the world's greatest libraries - in the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan and in the Aztec-allied cities of Tetzcoco and Tlacopan. Of the thousands of books of Aztec poetry, law, rhetoric, medicine, astronomy and history, only one or two works appear to have survived.

So comprehensive was the Spanish obliteration of the Aztec intellectual and literary achievement that much of the modern academic world became convinced that that achievement had never really existed.

Key to that perception was the belief that Aztec hieroglyphic signs did not constitute a proper writing system and that therefore a complex written literary tradition could not have existed.

But now, new research by a British linguistic anthropologist, Gordon Whittaker, is revealing for the first time that the Aztecs' hieroglyphic writing system was one of the most sophisticated scripts that humanity has ever produced.

After some 20 years of detailed research, Professor Whittaker has discovered that, like ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, the Aztec writing system could be used not just to convey a limited number of words and syllables, but to comprehensively communicate the sounds of every syllable in the Aztec language (Nahuatl) – a flexibility which allowed tens of thousands of often multi-syllabic words to be expressed phonetically in written form.

The way in which the Aztec writing system could not only be used to represent objects or actions, but could also be used to represent every spoken sound, allowed Aztec scribes to express the entire Aztec lexicon of literally tens of thousands of words.

Professor Whittaker's research - due to be published in London next week - is therefore now beginning to demonstrate that the Aztecs' writing system was, arguably, the most advanced ever developed in the Americas.

Indeed, in terms of organisation, concept and sophistication, he has concluded that it was comparable to one of the Old World's most sophisticated scripts - Japanese.