Zelia Nuttall was born in San Francisco, California, to Anglo-Irish parents. In 1865, her father, a doctor, took his family to Europe where they lived until Zelia was 19. She had by then became proficient in several languages. She attended Bedford College for Women of the University of London. In 1880, she married Alphonse Louis Pinart, a French anthropologist and linguist with whom she had a daughter; the couple later divorced. In 1884, Zelia made her first visit to Mexico along with her mother, two siblings, and her daughter. She spent five months working in the National Museum, and began collecting small terracotta heads from San Juan Teotihuacan. These were the subject of her first scholarly paper published in 1886. She was given the title of Honorary Assistant in Mexican Archaeology at the Peabody Museum of Harvard University, a position she held for 47 years. After some 13 years of extensive travel and research, she published her largest work, The Fundamental Principles of New and Old World Civilizations (1901), an analysis of cultures ranging from the Maya, Zuñi, and Pacific Islanders to Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and Western European. Her most famous investigation was the search for the provenance of the beautiful pre-Columbia Zapotecan Manuscript, painted by Mixtec artists, which she traced from its origins to the Monastery of San Marco, Florence, to its later owner. The manuscript was published by the Peabody Museum and re-named the Codex Nuttall in her honor. In 1890, she had found the Codex Magliabecchiano XIII. 3, which was published in 1903 by the University of California under the title The Book of the Life of the Ancient Mexicans. She settled permanently in Mexico in 1902.