Although stories of paper production tend to center around its beginnings in China or Egypt, another culture developed their own system of paper production and use completely independent of these far-away societies. The Pre-Columbian Mayans made their own paper from the inner bark of fig trees – and in some cases, considered it so precious as to be sacred.
Mayan paper production started with a piece of a fig trees’ inner bark, which would be boiled and then pounded briskly with a stone, ensuring all the fibers were condensed and completely flattened. The resulting piece of bark paper was light brown with corrugated lines, and once it dried, the sheet would actually be somewhat stretchy. In addition, it was also quite delicate, and although this was bad for preservation, it meant that the paper itself was highly valued.
Amatl paper could be carefully folded or rolled up for storage, which resulted in its use as a base for many Mayan and Aztec codices, such as the Huexotinco Codex. It would be painted with a brush and then kept safe by priests or scribes working in a religious context.
On occasion, amatl paper was used for important communications between various tribes, in particular those from whom a larger tribe was demanding tribute. The paper was also used for keeping track of tribute payments and keeping other trade records, for recording books of government, and for some elite members of society who could afford to use the paper in their everyday writings.
In fact, it is quite likely that the use of amatl paper evolved out of the earlier Mayan bark-clothing called huun, which was made by stripping bark off a tree and beating it into shape. The Mayans would later use the bark to create small, 6 inch by 8 inch pieces of ‘paper’ for books and documents, sometimes left in strips of up to 30 feet long and then folded accordion-style. These ‘screens’ were then bound with pieces of wood or leather, decorated with jewels, and then read either like a traditional book or unrolled to its full length.
Although huun paper continued to be used until around 1000 AD, it never achieved the same prominence and sacred use as amatl. While huun tended to be used for the mundane or for the average person’s daily writings, amatl paper was treasured – a gift from the gods, not to be used lightly.
Want to read more?
Tomorrow: Greek long jump with weights!