Oldest Writing in the New World Discovered in Veracruz, Mexico

Posted by Chris Parker
Sep 17 2006


Images: テつゥ Science

PROVIDENCE, R.I. テ「竄ャ窶 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テ「竄ャ邃「s Stephen D. Houston, determined that the slab テ「竄ャ窶 named the テ「竄ャナ鼎ascajal blockテ「竄ャツ テ「竄ャ窶 dates to the early first millennium B.C.E. and has features that indicate it comes from the Olmec civilization of Mesoamerica.

They say the block and its ancient script テ「竄ャナ斗ink the Olmec civilization to literacy, document an unsuspected writing system, and reveal a new complexity to this civilization.テ「竄ャツ

New Worldテ「竄ャ邃「s Oldest Writing

Sixty-two signs incised on a block of serpentine date to the first millennium B.C.E. and are thought to be the earliest writing in the New World. The Cascajal block, an artifact of the Olmec civilization, was found by road builders in a pile of debris.

テ「竄ャナ的tテ「竄ャ邃「s a tantalizing discovery. I think it could be the beginning of a new era of focus on Olmec civilization,テ「竄ャツ said Houston, an expert on ancient writing systems and corresponding author for the Science article.

テ「竄ャナ的tテ「竄ャ邃「s telling us that these records probably exist and that many remain to be found. If we can decode their content, these earliest voices of Mesoamerican civilization will speak to us today.テ「竄ャツ

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 Rodrテδュguez and Ponciano Ortテδュz, lead authors of the article in Science, 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, in addition to テ「竄ャナ妬nternal cluesテ「竄ャツ and テ「竄ャナ途egional archaeology,テ「竄ャツ have helped the team date the block and its text to the San Lorenzo phase, ending about 900 B.C.E.

Thatテ「竄ャ邃「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, 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 テ「竄ャナ田onforms to all expectations of writing.テ「竄ャツ

テ「竄ャナ鄭s products of a writing system, the sequences would, by definition, reflect patterns of language, with the probable presence of syntax and language-dependent word order,テ「竄ャツ the article states. 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 テ「竄ャ窶 a discovery Houston calls テ「竄ャナ砥nprecedented.テ「竄ャツ Several paired sequences of signs also lead the researchers to believe the text contains poetic couplets which would be the earliest known examples of this expression in Mesoamerica.

In addition to Houston, the research team includes some of the worldテ「竄ャ邃「s top experts on Olmec civilization, ceramics, and imagery: Ma. del Carmen Rodrテδュguez Martテδュnez and Alfredo Delgado Calderテδウn of the Centro del Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia of Mexico; Ponciano Ortテδュz Ceballos of the Instituto de Antropologテδュa de La Universidad Veracruzana; Michael D. Coe of Yale University; Richard A. Diehl of University of Alabama; and Karl A. Taube of University of California-Riverside. High-resolution photographs of the Cascajal block and other graphics are available by contacting the Office of Media Relations at (401) 863-2478.


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