Tablet found in Mexico has hemisphere's oldest writing

Archaeologists identify 3,000-year-old symbols from Olmec empire

September 15, 2006|By Thomas H. Maugh II | Thomas H. Maugh II,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Archaeologists working on the Gulf coast of Mexico say a 3,000-year-old stone tablet there bears the oldest writing in the Western Hemisphere and the first text unambiguously linked to the Olmec empire -- the enigmatic civilization believed to be the progenitor of the Aztecs and Maya.

The 26-pound tablet, about the size of a legal pad, bears symbols arrayed in a manner suggesting a recording of everyday speech.

"We have long thought that the Olmec would have writing," said archaeologist William A. Saturno of the University of New Hampshire, who was not involved in the discovery. "This block is finally the evidence everyone has been waiting for."

Scientists might never be able to translate the text unless they find many more examples of Olmec writing, said archaeologist Stephen D. Houston of Brown University, a co-author of the report published today in the journal Science.

But "if we can decode it, it gives us a chance of hearing their voices and finding out what they considered important and worth recording," he said.

The Olmec flourished in south-central Mexico for more than 1,000 years before they mysteriously disappeared, just before the rise of the Maya. They were the first civilization in Mesoamerica and, at their height, built large pyramids and massive stone sculptures. They built the first cities in the region and established a wide-ranging trading system that stretched across Central America.

The tablet dates from about 1000 BC to 900 BC and is at least 300 years older than any other purported writing discovered in the region.

Virtually all of the purported writing that has been found previously in the first millennium BC are isolated sets of one to a few glyphs, or symbols. Critics have charged that such discoveries represent merely pictures or identifiers, not true writing.

With the new discovery, Houston said, "suddenly we are aware of the possibility that those far shorter sequences may be part of the same writing system."

Beginning about 1600 BC, the Olmec settled a highly fertile region characterized by swampy lowlands punctuated by low hills and ridges.

The Olmec fished in landlocked ponds and grew maize, beans and squash. They built large pyramids surrounded by rectangular huts made from plants and adobe, with stone drainage systems under their communities. They harvested rubber -- their name means "rubber people" in the Aztec language -- and invented a ballgame that became prominent throughout the region.

What the Olmec called themselves is unknown.

They are perhaps best known for the massive stone heads they sculpted to grace their monumental architecture.

They also developed calendars and the concept of zero. "They had so many other things that it would seem odd if they didn't have the concept of writing," Saturno said.

In fact, he said, they started making paper about 1500 BC, beating the bark of trees into thin sheets. "What else were they making the paper for" besides writing, he asked.

But because of the climate, none of that paper has survived.

The tablet almost didn't survive as well. It was unearthed in 1999 by road builders digging gravel from an ancient mound at Cascajal, a village on an island about a mile from San Lorenzo.

A local archaeologist called in anthropologists Maria del Carmen Rodriguez Martinez and Ponciano Ortiz Ceballos of the Centro del Instituto Nacional de Anthropologia e Historia, who are lead authors of the Science report. They assembled the team that analyzed the tablet this spring.

Pottery shards excavated along with the tablet dated it to the beginning of the first millennium BC, as did similarities between the glyphs and symbols found on artwork from that period. There will likely always be controversy about the date and the tablet's origin, however, because it was not found in its original location.

"We're quite comfortable with the date we've assigned it," Houston said.

The serpentine or greenstone tablet bears 29 distinct glyphs, some of which are repeated as many as four times. It appears to read horizontally from left to right -- unlike most other text from the region, which is read vertically.

Some of the symbols are clearly derived from natural objects, such as insects, corn, awls and thrones.

From the way the symbols are laid out, "it is crushingly obvious that we are in the presence of writing," Houston said.

"This has a large number of symbols, the symbols are repeated, and they are repeated in order," Saturno said. "There are phrases being written, which really strengthens the argument that this is a writing system -- a way to make spoken language permanent."

Thomas H. Maugh II writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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