— The Cascajal block is 36 centimetres wide and about 3000 years old (scroll down for a clear drawing of the symbols inscribed upon it) (Image: Stephen Houston)
An epigraphic drawing of the Cascajal slab makes it symbols clear – occasional repetition of symbol order makes a persuasive argument for the representation of language (Image: Science)
A slab inscribed with the oldest writing yet discovered in the New World has been discovered in the Veracruz lowlands in Mexico.
The writing dates back nearly 3000 years to the height of the Olmec culture that was the first Mesoamerican civilisation, Mexican archaeologists report.
Called the Cascajal slab, it had been rescued along with other artefacts from a quarry at Lomas de Tacamichapa, in 1999, where it had been destined for use in road fill.
Isolated symbols have been found on a few Olmec artefacts, but the slab is the first solid evidence of a true written language, says Stephen Houston at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, US, who helped analyse it. (The slab is pictured to the right scroll down for a clear drawing of the inscribed symbols)
The script is the first new writing system to be discovered in decades and is distinct from the writing of later Mesoamerican cultures. "We're talking about something that happens once in a human lifetime," Houston told New Scientist.
The slab weighs about 12 kilograms and is about the length and width of a laptop computer, but much deeper (36 centimetres by 21 cm by 12 cm). It is blank except for one side, which has been ground smooth and inscribed with 62 symbols of a hieroglyphic script. The symbols are arranged in rows and some are repeated, similar to other written languages.
Three of the 28 distinct symbols appear four times, six appear three times, and 12 appear twice. Some symbols resemble objects including an insect, an ear of corn and a throne.
Carmen Rodriguez and Ponciano Ortiz at the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History recovered the Cascajal slab and helped study the inscription. Direct dating was impossible because the slab was not found in its original location.
However, about three-quarters of the other artefacts found with the slab come from the San Lorenzo phase of the Olmecs, which others have dated at 1200 BC to 900 BC. The rest came from a distinct cultural group that occupied the area from about AD 800 to AD 900. Houston thinks the slab itself dates from 1000 BC to 900 BC.
The slab is the first clear evidence the Olmecs had a written language. The repeated paring of signs such as the throne with a mat-like symbol suggest poetic couplets, a form used by later cultures in the region, the researchers say.
It is a great challenge to figure out what they are saying from a single inscription, Houston told New Scientist, since we know nothing of their language. He doubts the script is a list of accounts, because it includes nothing resembling the dots that later Mesoamericans used for numbers. Beyond that, its meaning remains a mystery.
The presence of similar symbols on other objects suggests the script was used widely, Houston says. Excavation of nearby waterlogged sites have yielded many wooden sculptures which otherwise would have decayed in the moist tropical environment.
With rock rare in the area, he speculates the Olmec usually wrote on wood or paper that would have decayed long ago. They also may have reused the Cascajal slab itself, Houston says, suggesting the inscribed side had been ground down to remove an earlier inscription.
The link to the Olmec culture is convincing, says Mary Pohl of Florida State University, US, who was not involved in this study. Pohl had previously excavated an inscribed roller stamp of the Olmec culture, which was firmly dated to 650 BC (see Early Americans used first writing to promise loyalty).
Recently, another roller stamp has been dated to 1150 BC, pushing back the origin of the Olmec symbols. "Things are really beginning to come together; this is really an exciting time," Pohl told New Scientist.
Journal reference: Science (vol 313, p 1610)
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