Communication before Columbus. Contributions to indigenous communication

Contributions to the III Continental Summit of Indigenous Communication of Abya Yala, Cochabamba, Bolivia, from November 14th to 18th, 2016.

Servindi, September the 10th, 2016. Certainly one of the most valuable books for the understanding of the indigenous communication is The Communication before Columbus. Types and forms in Mesoamerica and the Andes. This work was developed by a team led by maestro Luis Ramiro Beltran (Bolivian); and also comprised of Karina Herrera, Esperanza Pinto and Erick Torrico.

The document has the valuable merit of refuting some colonial visions that have belittled the contribution of prehistoric people, considered as "illiterate" and condemned them until not too long ago to the confines of prehistory. And this is because based on the alphabet they have overvalued technological advances to record it, giving considerable weight to the printing press.

Consequently, the predominant trend has been denying the existence of alternative writings, and opt for a "logocentric exclusivism" that recognizes the alphabetical writing as unique.

One of the contributions of "Communication before Columbus" is to reaffirm the communication as “a social and human incident that was developed before and outside the technology that multiply its range or benefits their conservation".

It is worth noting that throughout the development of cultures there were different modes of record and transmission of data and messages of  extraordinary wealth, which is yet to be explored.

The volume of 314 pages was published by the interdisciplinary center for communication studies (CIBEC) in October 2008 and this time we share some extracts and essential ideas of the book as a contribution to the Pre-Summit of indigenous communication to be held from 3 to August 5 in Lima, Peru.

The event will make contributions to the thematic focus on “Training” and will be held in Peru as a prelude to the III Continental Summit of indigenous communication of Abya Yala, to take place from November 14 through 18 of 2016 in Cochabamba, Bolivia.

Communication before Columbus. Types and forms in Mesoamerica and the Andes

Social and personal functions of communication

La comunicación comporta acciones que dan lugar a diferentes consecuencias objetivas. Las principales de ellas, para los fines del presente estudio, son las siguientes:

- Expression: Individual externalization of a feeling or idea.

- Interaction/Exchange: Relationship between one or more members of one or more social groups that may involve a two-way flow of communication, not necessarily dialogic, nor horizontal.

- Record/documentation: Preservation of information through a notation system and, eventually, a classification system.

- Information: Production of data on people, facts or concepts that can be distributed to a limited or wide number of people.

- Propaganda: Selected information that tends to present positively or negatively certain information in order to persuade people in a certain way.

- Teaching: Education of any subject for those who haven’t received any before.

- Commemoration/remembrance: Commemorative celebration of some important event that can have a festive nature.

- Ritualistic: Celebration of any religious, political and even social ceremony that is subject to certain beliefs, customs and culturally accepted rules.

- Regulation: Formal establishment of rules that govern the behavior of the members of a community and keep them within required limits for social harmony and the preservation of the institutional system.

All these functions belong to basic activities of the individual and group life that includes a great variety of forms of communication with their respective languages and resources.

The presence of these in pre-Colombian societies’ daily life was evident, a fact that reasserts the certainty that permeates this work, regarding the existence and development of different communication modes in those villages. (Page 39)

Types and forms of communication in pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica

The following table is by no means exhaustive or definite, but rather an exploratory initiative that suggests and summarizes a typology of pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican communication and their respective forms.

Communication types

Expression forms

Oral Communication

- Cuicatl (poems/cantos/hymns)

- Tlahtolli (words, tales, speeches)

- Stories


Gestural-spatial-sound communication (to the accompaniment of the oral communication)

- Festivities, dances, music

- Rituals

- Theater

Iconographic and written communication

- Painting, murals, ceramics, goldsmithing, silversmithing, featherwork, carving.

- Stone tablets, ceramic, stelas, tombstones and others.

- Mesoamerican books(codex or “amoxtli”)

Monumental-space communication

- Cities

- Temples, plazas

- Stelas and friezes

- Administration and Teaching buildings


Other forms:

- Costume

- Pre-Hispanic Messaging

Regarding which actors, uses and functions were preferential types and these forms of communication in Mesoamerica and the pre-Hispanic Andes:

(…) Generally speaking, the symbolic Pre-Columbian production can be understood as the development and use of multiple languages, subject to various encoding rules and which cannot be restricted to just a single word or its alphabetical representation. Furthermore, the variety of described social functions assigned to the symbolic uses, a great part of which, as just noted, was already present in pre-Hispanic cultures: narrate, celebrate, record, report, save and reproduce the traditions, worship, legitimate, express feelings, recall or teach, among other major functions.

Pre-Columbian people used different symbolization codes - where the types and forms of the classification proposed in this study emerge - that served to meet the need for communication related to different aspects of social life, from daily life and governmental management to those aimed at establishing links between men and the deities they believe in.

Research recognized four major modes of communication:

- man-nature,

- man-deities

- elites-pueblo, and

- man-man.

In the same direction, as mentioned above, various uses of communication was identified: rituals, artistic, political-administrative, educational, holidays, interpersonal relationships or romantic relationships.

Apart from recording and explaining in detail the existence, in the latter case, of a rich diversity of options (word, music, theater, dance, iconography, etc.), along with the instruments as much as the genres and subgenres that served to manifest, the study highlighted the fact that in pre-Columbian America there was a fundamental development of writing long before the Spanish conquerors brought the alphabet (Pages 298-299).

¡Glory to the master!

Luis Ramiro Beltrán, master of journalism and communication, was born in Oruro, Bolivia, in 1930 and died on July 11, 2015 at age 85, after 70 years of painstaking and hard work in communication

He began his career in journalism, from a very young age, and went through different media, especially written, until he eventually established his own: the humorous weekly “Momento” and “El Condor” radio station.

Apart from succeeding as a seasoned journalist, he made the leap into the field of theories of communication. Luis Ramiro Beltran is recognized as one of the founders of the Critical Latin American School, which establishes a new paradigm of communication.

This model takes as a starting point in the analysis of the Constitution of the media around its cultural framework and focuses criticism on the relevance of economic and political processes that shape people's movements.

The contribution of Luis Ramiro led the debate to the democratization of the media and won several international awards such as the McLuhan-Teleglobe Award in Canada, a global communication award given to the most prominent theorists in this field.

In 1997 he received the National Journalism Award of Bolivia and in 2007 an award from the American Association of Communication Researchers (ALAIC) for his work in research.

One of his latest awards was the "Parliamentary Order to Democratic Merit Marcelo Quiroga Santa Cruz" medal for having succeeded in combining democratic values with the very essence of the communication process, which cannot be understood out of spaces for democratic, inclusive and participatory dialogue.

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