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January 28, 2015
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Ancient writing system reported found
Sept. 14, 2006
Courtesy Brown University
A previously unknown
writing system, thought to be the earliest in the New World, has
turned up on a stone block in Veracruz, Mexico, archaeologists
say. Dating to about 900 B.C. or earlier, they add, it seems to come
from the ancient Olmec civilization and may contain poetry.
The block and script, which includes symbols
resembling pineapples, “link the Olmec civilization
to literacy, document an unsuspected writing system,
and reveal a new complexity” to the Olmecs, a statement from
the researchers said.
A drawing intended to
clarify the writing marks, which are numbered for identification. (©
Olmec culture, centered on the Veracruz area, flourished in
Mesoamerica, or present-day Mexico and Central America,
between 1300 and 400 B.C.
“I think it could be the beginning of a new era of focus on Olmec
civilization,” said Stephen D. Houston of Brown University
in Providence, R.I., co-author of a paper on the finding in
the Sept. 14 issue of the research journal Science.
More such writings likely await discovery, added Houston, an
expert on ancient writing systems. “If we can decode their content,
these earliest voices of Mesoamerican civilization
will speak to us today.”
Road builders originally discovered the slab, dubbed the Cascajal
block, in a debris heap near a demolished area in the Lomas
de Tacamichapa community in the late 1990s.
Mexican archaeologists Carmen Rodríguez and Ponciano Ortíz,
the paper’s lead authors, later recognized its importance,
the scientists said.
Found with the piece were fragments of pottery,
of clay figurines and of ground stone, the researchers added.
These, and other clues, led them to date the block to the Olmecs’
so-called San Lorenzo phase, ending about 900 B.C. That’s about
400 years before writing was thought to have appeared in the Western
Front view of the
block. (Courtesy Science)
The incised text consists of 62 signs, some of which are repeated
up to four times, the researchers said. Its distinct elements,
patterns of sequencing, and consistent reading order are
indicative of writing, the team argues.
“As products of a writing system, the sequences would, by definition,
reflect patterns of language,” the paper states. The tablet
weighs 26 pounds (12 kg).
The archaeologists said the block seems to have been carved repeatedly
and erased, a feature Houston called “unprecedented.” The
evidence for this is that five sides of the slab are convex, while
the sixth, with the text, is concave, they explained.
Several paired sequences of signs also led the researchers to
suggest the text contains poetic couplets, which, they added,
would be the earliest known examples of this expression in Mesoamerica.
The characters may also represent accounting or recordkeeping,
Houston said. The researchers observed that the symbols resemble
other imagery of the Olmecs, who additionally made statues
of heads up to eight feet tall.
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