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Amatl ( , or papel amate) is a form of paper that was manufactured in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. It is made by boiling the inner bark of several species of trees, particularly fig trees (genus Ficus) such as F. cotinifolia and F. padifolia. The resulting fibrous material is pounded with a stone to produce a stretchy and somewhat delicate paper, colored light brown with corrugated lines.

Its use in Mesoamerica likely dates back to at least the Early Preclassic period of Mesoamerican chronology, in the early 1st millennium BCE. Iconography (in stone) dating from the period contains depictions of items thought to be paper. For example, Monument 52 from the Olmec site of San Lorenzo Tenochtitlánmarker illustrates a personage adorned with ear pennants of folded paper.

Word origin

Although its manufacture and use was common throughout Mesoamerican cultures, the material is generally and contemporarily known and referred to by its Nahuatl-language name, amatl. The Spanish word amate directly derives from the Nahuatl term. In both the 16th century and contemporary Yukatek Maya language, the equivalent word is kopo (modernised orthography, also rendered as copo in earlier orthographies). In the Classic Maya language, which was the main language appearing in most of the Maya hieroglyphics inscriptions, the equivalent is likely to have been huun (or hun), which also had the broader meaning of "book" or "bark".


The paper had both religious and secular uses. The paper would be painted using a brush and rolled up or folded for storage. It was used as a base material in the construction of several Mesoamerican cultures' accordion-folded books, including Maya codices and Aztec codices.

As modern folk art form

Beginning in the early 20th century, several tribes among the Nahuatl language speakers of Mexicomarker began developing paper amate paintings as an art-form primarily for trade or sale to tourists or other outsiders. Today, examples of the form can be found throughout southwestern Mexico, particularly in the states of Guerreromarker, Oaxacamarker, and Jaliscomarker, ranging from low-art and very inexpensive prints on papel amate to elaborate narrative scenes that can fetch much higher prices in city markets and fine art galleries.

Like most folk art forms, very few papel amate painters have achieved individual recognition for their work—most pieces are purchased because they follow a tradition of representation rather than express an individual voice. A few exceptions do exist, with most being family members who learned to paint together, including Inocencio Jimenez and Felix Jimenez Chino, Marcial, Juan and Felix Camilo Ayala, and Roberto and Abraham Mauricio Salazar.


  1. Miller and Taube (1993, p.131)
  2. Miller and Taube (1993, p.131)
  3. Nahuatl languages were spoken by, among others, the Aztecs. At around the time of the 16th-century Spanish conquest, Classical Nahuatl served as a lingua franca through much of central Mexico and surrounding regions, and Nahuatl terms were further spread and popularized by subsequent conquistador expeditions.


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