For several centuries now it has been the opinion of scholars, despite mounting evidence, that no printing of any sort took place in the New World before contact with Europeans. Adherents to this view point out the lack of surviving examples, or if any such works are put forward insist they must be post-Colonial works of native manufacture using European techniques; they point with disdain to the general technological development of the native peoples, particularly the lack of sophisticated mechanics and metalworking which are considered essential to the development of the printer's press as put together by Gutenberg in Mainz. Moreover, some of them allege that given the alternate path of societal development, the intricacies and peculiarities of the native written languages in particular, that the native peoples of the Americas were particularly ill-suited to the development of printing. All of these allegations and misconceptions are, of course, false. While never so widespread nor so developed as printing in Europe, the artisans of the New World did see the first flower of their native printing technology - only to lose it to disease, disaster, and destruction due to European contact.
The earliest written materials of the native peoples would have been wood-bark scrolls, such as the wiigwaasabakoon of the Ojibwe. This early paper development was not particularly developed in the north, where the extensive trading networks of the mound-builders was maintained primarily through oral contracts. In Mesoamerica and South America paper-making reached an apex in the form of huun or amatl-paper, which was a sturdy, attractive and high-quality form of bark-cloth. Amatl paper manufacture is believed to date back to at least 300 CE, and by 1427 when the Triple Alliance was formed, over forty villages were engaged in papermaking as part of the Aztec Empire by 1427. This paper was used for a number of documents related to religious and administrative duties, and gradually transitioned from the prototypical scroll form to a folded book or codex form by at least the late 1300s. Bookbinding as such does not appear in pre-Colonial native bookmaking, notwithstanding some copper plates with holes drilled in them that might have been bound together in that fashion.
These Mayan and Aztec codices were products of skilled human labor; indeed the Aztecs had an entire specialized painter-class to producing and illustrating them, the tlacuilo, as well as separate tradesmen for the production of paper, though the exact division of labor has since been lost to us. Educated painter-scribes were needed because these early codices were primarily pictorial rather than written, and often required interpretation by a skilled priest or noble, an outgrowth of the Aztec written language not being a true script, which no doubt proved to be one of the major hurdles in the development of printing. The Maya script, however, was a complete writing system which combined the logograms with syllabaric glyphs in a manner similar to Japanese, and as we shall see this proved very important later on.
The advent of the Triple Alliance in 1427 resulted in a book-burning that would not be equaled until the coming of the Spaniards over a century later. Tlacaelel ordered the burning of the traditional codices to make way for the reinterpretation of Aztec history and religion, giving a more central role to the Mexica and consolidating the political and religious dominance of that people over the region. Rapid dissemination of the new approved codices was accomplished by the use of printing - specifically a human-labor intensive form of block printing, using carved wood or stone blocks pressed down onto sheets of amatl-paper. None of these early presses survive, so there is little archaeological evidence for how they were built or used, but archaeologist and artisan print-maker Gabriel Xavier Encandeza has found the remains of an ancient printer in the Yucatan, and believes that the system was something along the following lines.
First, the block would be carved in relief. This would involve a particularly shallow form of engraving, similar to much Mayan or Aztec work. Then the block would be set into a wooden frame and inked. Analysis of existing inks show that they are carbon-based, and probably consist of a mixture of ashes from burnt plant matter mixed with animal glue; this gives a durable blue-black ink that would fade to reddish-brown with time, though it could also be washed off and would suffer in the humid tropical environment of Mesoamerica. The block and frame would then be set above the press, on which the amatl would be laid, and lowered down - a process which probably involved several workers acting together to properly position paper and stone. The actual impression would then be achieved by piling weights, probably carefully-measured bundles of stone or pottery fragments, atop the inked block. After a few minutes the weight would be removed, the block raised, and the paper folded over - perhaps using a lathed stick or frame - to form one page of the book. Then the block for the next page could be brought forth, and in that way a codex that might take weeks to paint by hand could be printed in a matter of hours, perhaps a single day - and copies could be brought forth very quickly indeed. Encandeza believes that the final product was still probably painted by a tlacuilo, who filled in between the darkened lines to create a more familiar and colorful finished product.
While not a "true" printing press in some respects, the entire operation is strongly similar to other early printing efforts recorded in Asia, and aspects of it might date back to as early as 600 CE, the first appearance of the so-called "flat Mayan glyph blocks" in the archaeological record. However, it is with the rise of the Aztecs that Mesoamerican printing begins to truly advance. Contemporary records of the Spanish Conquest speak of "sheets of gold and silver" etched with "the whole history of the world" which they viewed on the streets of Tenochtitlan, and we know from other evidence that the route they took through the city led them through the scribal district, where they viewed "bales of paper" being unloaded into warehouses - tribute from paper-making villages in the Aztec Empire. It seems likely given the evidence that these "sheets" were really engraved metal plates intended for printing - probably not of gold and silver, as the Spaniards thought, because those metals are too soft to be suitable for printing, but likely a copper-alloy like tumbaga or a silver-lead alloy such as certain contemporary Incan artifacts. Whatever the case, the advent of engraved metal printing plates would set the stage for the next great evolution in Mesoamerican print technology: movable type.
An inscription dating from about 1450 CE on a small temple in the modern state of Morelos, the main Aztec paper-making region, shows Amateotl, god of paper, blessing a scribe named Xitzatl. According to local legend, Amateotl came to Xitzatl in the shape of a fish, and "taught him to make the letters dance." Several partial codices from roughly the same period and region around the temple show a remarkable degree of uniformity among some of the texts - in several instances, the mathematical notation in each is nearly identical, despite the fact that the notation has been set in completely different pictorial context. Excavations of the temple in the 1960s turned up a number of unusual artifacts, including a rotten rectangular wooden frame taken to be a bed or drying-rack, and a "wealth of broken clay and stone tablets covered with characters, some faced with metal." Re-examination of these artifacts in the 1990s revealed that there were not fragments of larger texts, but deliberately carved stone blocks each of which consisted of the impression of a single Aztec logogram - in other words, either type, or the casting-blocks for type. The type-blocks would have been set in a wooden frame, much like the one used for the larger picture-blocks, and pressed down on the paper in the same way.
The Aztec language, as it has been noted, is not a full script. It is quite suitable for record-keeping and mathematics, but otherwise is primarily a logogram system to aid in the memorization of long narratives. It is perhaps appropriate, then, that the largest use of this basic movable type system was for mathematical notation, particularly among the Aztec merchants, the pochtecas. The pochtecas maintained the vast trade network that brought wealth to the Aztec empire, their porter-caravans carrying parrots, maize, copper, gold, silver, cacao beans, obsidian, cotton, salt, colored cloth, and many other goods as part of the trade network running from the Pueblo in the north to the Inca in the south, and by the early 1500s the greatest pochtecas rivaled the nobility in wealth, and had warehouses and trade contacts in many cities, communicating between them using runners bearing letters - often simple letters of account, informing the receiver of the number of goods at hand, or an order to move certain goods to another village or city. Metal was a novelty to the Aztecs, and the wealthiest pochtecas might have used metal type as a way to emphasize their elite status, but the pochtecas were also an insular lot, who lived apart and worshipped their own gods, and unlike merchants in Europe did not capitalize on printing - perhaps, again, because of the unsuitability of nahuatl's written language to that process.
This may be why Mayan printing began to advance considerably in the same period as the Aztec expansion under Ahuitzotl and Moctezuma II. Evidence of small block-printing in Mayan villages exists beginning in the 1500s, and according to records kept by early priests in the Yucatan, many villages contained "hundreds of books" to be fed to the flames, and "with them their blocks and inks to make them" while "the good metal was melted down." The latter could refer to the Mayan fonts, of which certainly several sets must have existed - it being entirely possible that each "village printer" carved or made their own, though certainly the best and most durable sets would have been made by specialist metal-workers. Because of this holocaust of letters it is difficult to say exactly how advanced Mayan printing became, but several late examples that survived into the early colonial era show that, at least, the Mayans had moved away from the half-painted books of the Aztecs and were printing directly on the page and presenting the result as a finished product - much as European printers would cease to employ illuminators to color in letters and illustrations in their own books. The content too, changes from the accounting and religious/historical texts to secular or near-secular works intended for a non-priestly audience. We have, for example, four pages of a Mayan codex complaining against the tyranny of the Mexica, and six fragments of a medicinal codex on the use of certain plants.
All this, however, ceased with the coming of the Spanish - although not everywhere, and not all at once, just as knowledge of the native languages did not cease entirely simply because Europeans set foot there. However, Mayan and Aztec printing did enter terminal decline, if not with the conquest of Tenochtitlan than with the spread of disease among the Aztec trade routes and path of Spanish conquest and conversion, which quite wiped out the bulk of the native peoples and led to the economic collapse of many major population centers where the printers would have been located. Likewise, most of the valuable metal types and printing plates appear to have been melted down for their copper, silver, or lead content - Cortez himself accounts how all the "golden tablets" in Tenochtitlan were gathered up and melted down, only to find that they were only bronze, which infuriated him. Deprived of both the means and motive to publish, with generations of technical expertise probably falling victim to disease, it is little wonder that Mayan and Aztec printing fell off.
European printing did not come to the Americas until 1539, four years after the formal establishment of New Spain. By that time, native printing was largely defunct, just as literacy in native languages was in decline. Still, x-ray analysis of early Colonial-era Christian documents on amatl-paper show that they were written on top of former printed documents; the carbon-ink of old codices was washed off so the paper could be reused, but the impressions of the block-press left behind remain.