Script Delivery: New World writing takes disputed turn

Archaeologists have applauded recent excavations at an ancient settlement in southeastern Mexico that have yielded an array of artifacts from the Olmec civilization. However, controversy has flared with the claim that a few of these artifacts display remnants of the first written language in the New World, dating to around 650 B.C.

TELLTALE SIGNS. Examples of newly discovered Olmec inscriptions appear on jade plaque fragments and this colored imprint from a cylindrical seal. Pohl, K. Pope, and C. von Nagy

A cylindrical ceramic seal and four pieces of a jade plaque were unearthed at the San Andrés site in 1997 and 1998. Symbols carved on those finds belong to a writing system based on the spoken Olmec tongue, contend Mary E.D. Pohl of Florida State University in Tallahassee and her colleagues. Olmec writing provided a foundation for scripts developed by other regional civilizations, including the Maya, beginning at least 250 years later, Pohl’s team proposes in the Dec. 6 Science.

“These [San Andrés] artifacts, which predate others containing writing, reveal that key aspects of [ancient New World] scripts were present in Olmec writing,” the scientists conclude.

Critics of the report, such as Harvard University’s David Stuart, say that it’s hard to discern grammatical writing in a handful of suggestive symbols. These symbols could simply have been drawings of objects, people, or gods, according to Stuart, who specializes in ancient Maya writing. Previous finds have established that the Olmec people used pictorial writing.

Pohl’s group discovered the seal and plaque shards in a deposit of refuse from festival and feasting activities at the Olmec site. They dated the finds using radiocarbon analyses of charcoal in the deposit.

Inscriptions on the seal and plaque display important elements of later scripts employed by civilizations in Mexico and Central America, the researchers say.

These include a mix of language-related symbols and drawings, as well as references to a sacred calendar and specific kings.

According to the scientists, the seal carries two sets of symbols emanating from the beak of a bird to show that the signs represent spoken words. Pohl and her coworkers interpret these hieroglyphics as representing the name “King 3 Ajaw.” The Olmec used “3 Ajaw” to refer to both the name of a day in a 260-day calendar and a king born on that day, just as nearby cultures did in their ensuing scripts, the researchers add.

Pohl suspects that the cylindrical seal was used to imprint clothing with the King 3 Ajaw symbol.

The researchers couldn’t translate the two complete hieroglyphic signs and two possible partial ones on the plaque fragments. Nonetheless, these signs show similarities to the writing of groups such as the Maya, they argue.

Pohl’s position receives partial support from John Justeson of the State University of New York at Albany and Terrence Kaufman of the University of Pittsburgh. At least one of the San Andrés plaques–but not the seal–bears symbols that were part of a writing system, Justeson and Kaufman assert in a joint e-mail to Science News. This finding reinforces earlier suggestions that a stone monument at another Olmec site contains writing that dates to about 500 B.C., they hold.

Olmec researcher Michael D. Coe of Yale University regards the new finds as “an early kind of writing.” However, it will take more discoveries to confirm that the symbols represented speech, he says.

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Bruce Bower

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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