This is one of a small number of extant Mexican codices (screenfold manuscript books) dating to pre-Hispanic times. It is made of deer skin and is comprised of 47 leaves. The Codex contains two narratives: one side of the document relates the history of important centres in the Mixtec region, while the other, starting at the opposite end, records the genealogy, marriages and political and military feats of the Mixtec ruler, Lord Eight Deer Jaguar-Claw. This ruler is depicted at top centre, next to his calendric name (8 circles and a deer's head). He was the second son of the high priest of Tilantongo and, as such, was not actually born into the ruling class. The story of Lord Eight Deer describes his travels to the caves of Chalcatongo (also in the Mixteca) where he invokes the powers of death. Here he consults the deified ancestors, looking for guidance and ideological legitimation. This narrative illustrates a system of posterity, in which dead ancestors are invited to influence living society. He receives divine support and, after conquering towns and making ritual offerings, he is eventually married to the daughter of Lord Four Jaguar, who confers on him the status of ruler of Tilantongo.
Very few Mesoamerican pictorial documents have survived destruction and it is not clear how the Codex Zouche-Nuttall reached Europe. In 1859 it was found in a Dominican monastery in Florence. Years later, Sir Robert Curzon, 14th Baron Zouche (1810-73), loaned it to The British Museum. His books and manuscripts were inherited by his sister, who donated the Codex to the Museum in 1917. The Codex was first published by Zelia Nuttall in 1902.