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Ancient writing system reported found

Sept. 14, 2006
Courtesy Brown University
and World Science staff

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.

A drawing intended to clarify the writing marks, which are numbered for identification. (© Science)


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.

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.

Front view of the block. (Cour­te­sy Sci­ence)


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 hem­i­sphere.

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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