Written literature in the usual sense does not exist in the indigenous American languages; however, there are folk literatures. Communication by writing among the Native Americans in the aboriginal period was limited to the Maya and the Aztecs. Both cultures used a form of picture writing to represent their ideas. About 800 of the Maya hieroglyphs, or symbols, are known, and in recent years substantial progress has been made in deciphering them. Not many texts of the Maya survive, the most numerous being inscriptions on buildings.
The Incas of Peru used a system of knotted cords, ropes, or strings to communicate. Called the quipu, it is considered a form of writing. The color and shape of the knotted cords were the clues to meaning. For instance, green cords signified grain, and red cords, soldiers. One knot stood for the number 10; two knots, 20; a double knot, 100. Among Native Americans of E North America, beaded wampum belts often contained pictographic symbols for communication.
Another means of nonlinguistic communication among many of the indigenous North Americans was sign language, consisting of gestures with the hands and arms. One advantage of sign language was that it made communication possible among Native American groups having different languages. In addition, smoke signals were used by some Native Americans to convey information, but they were capable only of giving simple messages, such as "enemies in the area" or some previously agreed-upon message.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.