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Amatl - the art of papermaking in prehispanic and nowadays Mexico

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Jürgen Stowasser

on 17 August 2010

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Transcript of Amatl - the art of papermaking in prehispanic and nowadays Mexico

(1st millenium B.C.) Amachihua - Making
amate paper Postconquest Mexico Commercialization and ecological consequences Read more... Francisco Hernández (1514 - 1587), court physician to the
King of Spain, was sent to the Americas to study the medicinal
plants in the new colonies. Supported by indigenous assistants,
he composed an extense catalogue on plants used in medicine,
agriculture or manufacturing. In this account, he preserved a
report on the process of paper making in the prehispanic

The different manufacturing steps described in the Hernández
Report resemble to the paper making technique in present-day San Pablito.
Historical sources:

Martire D´Anhiera, Pietro (also Mártir de Anglería, Pedro) 2005: De Orbe Novo Decades. Vol. I-II. Genova
Hernández de Toledo, Francisco De Historia Plantarum Novae Hispaniae.
Sahagún, Fray Bernardino de 1988: Historia general de las cosas de Nueva España. 2 vol. Madrid [= CF, span Version]
Sahagún, Bernardino de 1950–82: Florentine Codex. General History of the Things of New Spain, vols. I-XII. Charles E. Dibble and Arthur J.O. Anderson (eds.) . Santa Fe/Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.
Cruz Badiano
Starr, Frederick 1908: In Indian Mexico. A Narrative of Travel and Labor. Chicago = Gutenberg E-Book July 2, 2005 [EBook #16183] http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/16183


Amith, Jonathan 1995: La Tradicion del Amate. Innovación y Protesta en el Arte Mexicano. México
Cowen, Tyler 2005: Markets and Cultural Voices: Liberty vs. Power in the Lives of Mexican Amate Painters. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press
Fitl, Regina 1975: Die 'Muñecos' von San Pablito: Ein Beitrag zur Kenntnis der 'Brujeria' in der Sierra de Puebla, Mexiko. Diss Wien
Good Eshelman, Catherine 1988: Haciendo la lucha: arte y comercio nahuas de Guerrero. México: Fondo de Cultura Económica
López Binnqüist, Rosaura Citlalli 2003: The Endurance of Mexican Amate Paper: Exploring additional dimensions to the sustainable development concept. [Diss. Ciudad de México] Twente Enschede
Peters , Charles/Rosenthal, Joshua/Urbina, Teodile 1987: Otomi bark paper in Mexico: Commercialization of a pre-hispanic technology. Economic Botany. Volume 41, Number 3 / Juli 1987, New York: Springer, pp. 423-432
Sandstrom, Alan/Pamela Sandstrom 1986: Traditional Papermaking and Paper Cult Figures of Mexico. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press
CUTTING "Only the thickest branches are cut from the tree; new growth is left alone." (Francisco Hernández)

The making of amatl paper starts with the cutting
of the bark, a task traditionally pertformed by men while the further processing was mostly up to the women.

Cutting the bark requires a special know-how; e.g. the different tree species have their own cutting seasons depending on their growth cycle. Amate Tree in San Pahuatlan, Puebla. Cutted amatl bark ready for further procedure "They are macerated with water and left to soften overnight in streams and rivers."

The bark fibers are soaked in water and (or immediately) boiled in ash-water or lime-water ("nixtamal", a byproduct of tortilla-making). This process takes several hours and may be repeated. Thus the fibers of the inner bark (bast) - seperated from the exterior parts - are softened.
"The next day the bark ist stripped off and, once the exterior part has been cleaned, it is stretched out and thinned by being pounded with a flat stone, but it is slashed with a few striations, and then beaten with a willow branch doubled over into a circle, like a handle." (Francisco Hernández) "It is then cut in logs, which, beaten again with another, flatter stone, and polished, are finally split into leaves two spans long
and about a span and a half wide, which is very similar to out thicker, smoother paper, but it is more compact and whiter, though not as good as our smooth paper."

The fiber pulp is arranged on a wooden board in form of a grid
and then beaten (and thus felted) with a stone, the so-called

In this way the fiber stripes are blended together until they are forming a sheet of paper. Characteristically the upper side (the "beaten" one) is distinctly rougher than the flattened bottom side. Last step of the procedure: the paper is stretched in frames and dried in the sun.
The invention of papermaking in Mesoamerica probably dates back to the 1st millenium BC. The most likely point of origin is the Olmec area along the Gulf coast or in the neighbouring region of Yucatan, homeland of the Maya. An exact dating and localization of the origins of papermaking is prevented by the climatic conditions in the region in question: the hot humid climate of the tropical rain forest results to be extremely damaging to paper, thus the archaeological evidence is quite poor (and for the first millenium BC restricted to finds believed to be stones used in the process of papermaking).
Prehispanic Period (up to 1519) Paper was used for writing als well as in religious contexts
The manufacture and use of amate paper was widely spread in prehispanic Mesoamerica. Amatl was needed of course for writing - Aztec as well as Spanish sources
refer to archive buildings for manuscripts and books in every city
of Central Mexico.

Because of its use in "pagan" rituals, the colonial administration of New Spain banned the autochthonous amatl-paper by law. Due to the shortage of paper in 16th century Mexico, amate paper nevertheless continued to be in use for a while. In the long run the legal ban and the competition of paper mills producing "european" paper led to the collapse of the indigenous paper production.

Nevertheless the art of amatl paper making managed to survive.

At the beginning of the 20th century the US anthropologist Frederick Starr reported on the Otomí village San Pablito Pahuatlán in the state of Puebla where the tradition of bark paper had survived. According to Starr, the indigenous papermakers attended their business only in the night and in secret probably a consequence of the former ban by law. Similar to prehispanic times, the amate paper was used as harvest offerings and in healing ceremonies.
There are 10-15 tree species used for papermaking, mostly belonging to the ficus and mulberry families. As a consequence of the increasing demand for amatl, in the last decades there were new varieties adopted for papermaking.

The choice of a certain tree species depend on the features required for the paper such as the colour shade (e.g., mulberry tree paper provides a beige colour while paper from the jonote tree can bei recognized by its coffee colour); also, each species offers differing material properties (e.g., brittle or pliable).

In the community of San Pablito the art of bark paper making has been preserved until today. The ancient handcraft has even experienced a true renaissance during the last 30-40 years but at the same time it has undergone dramatic changes.
MESOAMERICA Paper was a good of great value in prehispanic Mesoamerica; it was not only used for a magnitude of books and manuscripts but played also an important part in various religious rituals.

The basic material used by indigenous papermakers was the inner bark of some tree species especially fig trees. For this reason "amatl", the word for paper in Nahuatl (the language of the Aztecs), derives from a certain fig tree species, called amacuahuitl ("cuahuitl" means "tree" in Nahuatl). In Mexican Spanish the autochthonous paper is called "amate" or "papel amate".
Yucatan Olmec Area Although there were other materials used by Mesoamerican scribes such as parchment (deer skin) and aper made of maguey (Agave cantala) or palm tree fibers, the favourite paper was amatl. This indicates also the Nahuatl (Aztec) word for book, "amoxtli", composed of "amatl" and "oxitl" (tree gum, used for the binding).

Paper was also often used for religious purposes.
The Franciscan missionary Bernardino de Sahagún (1499 – 1590) reports on ritual specialists, the so-called "amatlamatque" ("the ones who know about paper") who applied paper in sacrificial offerings. For instance, in burials the corpse was arranged with silhouette paper cutting devoted to Mictlantecuhtli, the Lord of the Dead.

Amate paper today San Pablito However, the spirits got ahead and now they are engaged in the business of tourist art: the silhouette paper and paintings on amate are sold as "artesanía" not only in San Pablito but also in Mexico City. Amate papermaker opened up new markets as well. Several Nahua communities in the Alto Balsa region in the state of Guerrero started developing paintings on amate which are for sale at tourist markets in the capital and seaside resorts. Thus the sales of amatl could be increased even further.
Silhouette paper cuttings representing Otomí
plant spirits (San Pablito Pahuatlán, 2000) "Dios del rayo"
(Thunderbolt god) "Espiritú del cacahuate"
(Peanut Spirit) Eagle Espiritú de piña
(Pineapple spirit) AMATL -
PAPERMAKING MACERATION Amatl in limewater Some papermakers are adding chlorine bleach, colours or even petals to attain different shades. POUNDING Paper beater (machacador)
made of volcano stone DRYING About Text: Jürgen Stowasser
Photos: Alejandra Barrera
Maps: openstreetmap.org

Contact: juergen.stowasser(at)univie.ac.at

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Vienna 2010 The restaurant "El Amate", next to an
amate tree in San Pablito Pahuatlán. -
Leobardo Ascencio Gomez, Pintura en papel amate
(Ameyaltepec 1999) This presentation introduces to the history of amatl paper and documents the manufacturing process as it has been preserved in the village of San Pablito in the state of Puebla.
Mixtec scribe, Codex Vindobonensis (14th century) Agave (Nahuatl metl,
Spanish maguey) Hence bark paper was also a sought-after merchandise. The Codex Mendocino, for example, mentions an annual tribute delivery of 480.000 sheets of paper to the Aztec capital city Tenochtitlan.

In nowadays Mexico, many toponyms still remind of the occurrence of amate trees and the local manufacture of amatl (e.g. Amatenango del Valle, Chiapas; Amatitlan, Veracruz; Amatitlan, Guerrero; Amatlan, Morelos).

By tradition Otomí healers used amate for silhouette paper cuttings ("papel picado") representing plant spirits or other supernatural beings. These figurines - in Spanish called „espíritus“(spirits) or “muñecos“ (puppets) - serve as offerings e.g. in harvest or healing rites.

The little boom amate papermaking has experienced within the last decades had undoubtedly positve effects on the local economy but ethnobotanical researchers (see bibliography) are pointing out the ecological impact caused by overharvesting. Some of the traditionally used amate tree species have already become almost extinct in northern Puebla.

As a consequence of this changes, some papermakers around San Pablito start to cultivate amate trees. Amate painting with Otomí plant spirits (San Pablito Pahuatlán, 2000) Amatl (papel amate/amate paper)
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