16 September 2006
Oldest writing in the New World discovered in Mexico
New research published this week in Science details the discovery of a stone (serpentine) block in Veracruz, Mexico, containing a previously unknown system of writing, thought to be the earliest in the New World. An international team of archaeologists, including Brown University’s Stephen D. Houston, determined that the slab – named the 'Cascajal block' – dates to the early first millennium BCE and has features that indicate it comes from the Olmec civilization of Mesoamerica. They say the block and its ancient script "link the Olmec civilization to literacy, document an unsuspected writing system, and reveal a new complexity to this civilization."
Road builders first discovered the Cascajal block in a pile of debris heaped to the side of a destroyed area in the community of Lomas de Tacamichapa in the late 1990s. Mexican archaeologists Carmen Rodríguez and Ponciano Ortíz were the first to recognize the importance of the find and to register it officially with the Goverment authority, the Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia of Mexico. Surrounding the piece were ceramic sherds, clay figurine fragments, and broken artifacts of ground stone, which have helped the team date the block and its text to the San Lorenzo phase, ending about 900 BCE. That’s approximately 400 years before writing was thought to have first appeared in the Western hemisphere.
Carved of the mineral serpentine, the block weighs about 26 pounds and measures 36 cm long, 21 cm wude, and 13 cm thick. The incised text consists of 62 signs and contains 28 distinct glyphs or symbols, some of which are repeated up to four times. Because of its distinct elements, patterns of sequencing, and consistent reading order, the team says the text "conforms to all expectations of writing."
Five sides on the block are convex, while the remaining surface containing the text appears concave; hence, the team believes the block has been carved repeatedly and erased. There is little hope of deciphering the meaning of the text. The small size of the block and the faintness of the inscription imply the text was not a public document, but instead was meant for intimate reading, the experts said. Some suggested it may have had a ritual use.
"This is centuries before anything we've had. People have debated whether the Olmecs had any writing. This clears it up. This nails it for me," David Stuart, a University of Texas at Austin expert in Mesoamerican writing, said of the new find. Stuart was not connected with the discovery, but reviewed the study for Science.
The find bolsters the early importance of the Olmecs, who flourished between about 1200 BCE and 400 BCE, before other great Central American civilizations such as the Maya and Aztec. They are best known for the massive heads they carved from stone. The village where the block was found is close to a site called San Lorenzo, believed to be the center of the Olmec world.
Much older examples exist elsewhere in the world — although the dates are controversial. According to Richard Parkinson, an expert on Egyptian inscriptions at the British Museum, London, the oldest examples of writing have been found in Egypt and the ancient region of Mesopotamia. These date to between 3200-3500 BCE, says Parkinson. The Egyptian writings take the form of tags used for linen that show where the products came from. Another contender is the Indus script found in Pakistan, which could be as old as 5,500 years. But experts are divided over whether this is true writing — it could simply be a collection of symbols or pictures.
Sources: Brown University, BBC News, International Herald Tribune, News@Nature (14 September 2006), The Independent (16 September 2006)