Friday, April 6, 2012

Linguistic Littorals

Comparative linguists identify six major language families in Mesoamerica:
  • Chibchan (spoken in the Isthmo - Colombian region from Honduras on the north to Colombia on the south)
  • Mayan
  • Mixe-Zoquean (probably the language of the Olmec)
  • Oto-Manguean (Mixtec, Zapotec)
  • Totonacan (may be part of the Mixe-Zoque family)
  • Uto-Aztecan (Nahuatl)
This is still a fertile field of inquiry which means this list is subject to change. For example, some linguists think Proto Mayan and Mixe-Zoquean both derive from a common ancestral tongue.

We will focus on southern Mesoamerica, south of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. This language map is the current version of the historical-comparative linguistic work that was summarized in the Handbook of Middle American Indians published by the University of Texas in the 1960's and '70's.
Mesoamerican language distribution at European contact.
This shows the spatial distribution of the various native languages and language families just before the Spanish conquest. The Mayan area is outlined in red (including the Huastec dialect around El Tajin in northern Veracruz). The Nahuatl areas reflect late post classic incursions by the Aztec empire. The Mixe, Zoque and Popolucan areas are thought to be linguistic holdovers from the ancient Olmec. Chiapanec is closely related to the Zapotec still spoken in Oaxaca today.

This map shows the contemporary distribution of Mayan dialects in southern Mesoamerica.
Distribution of Mayan dialects in southern Mesoamerica today.

And this map shows the approximate extent of the Maya world in preclassic times with early sites shown. The orange lines are the approximate boundaries of the a) northern lowland Maya in Yucatan, b) southern lowland Maya in Belize, Campeche and Peten, and c) highland Maya in highland Guatemala. The circle is the area generally thought of as the cradle of Maya civilization, centered on the Mirador Basin in northern Peten. Are there other preclassic Maya sites? Yes. Hundreds of them, many still unknown to science. The locations shown as black pyramid icons on the map below are simply a handful of preclassic Maya sites that have come to our attention because of their location or some salient characteristic.
Preclassic Maya World.
Now, we will add Chiapa de Corzo, the quintessential Zoque site; the area known as "La Frailesca," a major Zoque region in preclassic times; and preclassic Zoque sites (red pyramid icons) identified by NWAF archaeologists Gareth W. Lowe and Bruce R. Bachand.
Preclassic Maya and Zoque Worlds
Notice the distinct line of demarcation between the Maya and Zoque worlds. It is the Mezcalapa-Grijalva River. The river is a major linguistic boundary. That was true in preclassic times. It was true at European contact. And, it is true today.

Let's focus in on the Zoque area to see its direct link to the earlier, larger Olmec civilization. Recognized Olmec or Olmec-influenced sites are shown as orange pyramid icons.
Preclassic Olmec, Zoque and Maya Worlds.
From the map above, it is clear that the Olmec and Zoque overlapped to a large degree. Many sites are in both groups. Zoque civilization was a late, regional expression of Olmec.

This map shows the approximate extent of Zoque influence (blue shaded polygon) during Chiapa de Corzo's apogee ca. 1,000 B.C. to 400 B.C. according to Bruce R. Bachand.
Zoque area of influence at Chiapa de Corzo apogee.
Notice how the line of demarcation in this early (middle preclassic) era was the Usumacinta River. The map above is slightly misleading in two ways. 1) It shows Zoque influence before 400 B.C. (middle preclassic) while many of the Maya sites (black pyramid icons) date to the late preclassic (400 B.C. to A.D. 200). And, 2) Chiapa de Corzo is shown in the same size font as El Mirador. In reality, Chiapa de Corzo at apogee was orders of magnitude smaller (70 hectares) than El Mirador at apogee (2,000+ hectares). See the blog article "Site Sizes" for context around these metrics.

After 400 B.C., the Zoque area contracted rapidly while the Maya area expanded to fill the vacuum. Zoque influence became regionalized to the area south and west of the Mezcalapa-Grijalva River while Maya influence pushed west of the Usumacinta. During the late preclassic, the Maya linguistic and cultural area assumed roughly the shape and extension it occupies today, and it has remained remarkably stable ever since with some incursions (Teotihuacan, Toltecs, Aztecs) and forays into central Mexico (Cacaxtla in the state of Tlaxcala) and northern Veracruz (Huastec El Tajin).

Two candidates for the city of Zarahemla.
Some implications for The Book of Mormon:
  • The Olmec - Jaredite correlation continues to work pretty well. Zoque as a late, regional expression of Olmec fits the pattern. The Olmec collapase ca. 400 B.C. was roughly coterminous with the Zoque collapse.
  • The epi-Olmec phenomenon in the Papaloapan River basin and the Tuxtlas (ca. 300 B.C. to A.D. 250) also had an analogue in the Zoque area of Chiapas south and west of the Mezcalapa-Grijalva River.
  • The mass migration from the land of Nephi to Zarahemla under Mosiah1 occurred about 200 B.C. By that time, the Mezcalapa-Grijalva had largely assumed its long-running position as the linguistic littoral between the Maya and non-Maya worlds.
  • The leading candidate for the city of Zarahemla in the Mezcalapa-Grijalva/Sidon correlation, Santa Rosa, lies right on the linguistic boundary. The leading candidate for the city of Zarahemla in the Usumacinta/Sidon correlation, Nueva Esperanza II, lies squarely within Maya territory.
  • To poorly paraphrase Shakespeare, "To be or not to be Maya, that is the question." Hamlet Act 3 Scene 1.