Scripted Stone: Ancient block may bear Americas’ oldest writing

Road builders in southern Mexico discovered a script-covered block of stone among the rubble in a gravel quarry in 1999. A research team has now announced that the marks on the slab represent the oldest writing yet discovered in the Americas.

WRITER’S BLOCK. Signs such as these (inset), inscribed on a slab from southern Mexico, may represent the earliest known writing in the Americas. Houston

The quarry where the script was found abuts an archaeological site, near Veracruz, in what was the heartland of the ancient Olmec civilization. The imagery used in the writing indicates that the artifact, known as the Cascajal block, displays an early form of Olmec writing dating to nearly 3,000 years ago, says Stephen D. Houston of Brown University in Providence, R.I.

Previous examples of Olmec writing extend back no more than 2,650 years (SN: 12/7/02, p. 355: Script Delivery: New World writing takes disputed turn). Samples of Mayan writing in Central America date to as early as 2,200 to 2,400 years ago (SN: 1/21/06, p. 45: Getting a read on early Maya writing).

The rectangular Cascajal block weighs 12 kilograms. It’s 36 centimeters long, 21 cm wide, and 13 cm thick. On one side, the artifact contains 62 carved signs.

“This is an unambiguous example of writing,” Houston says.

He and his coworkers describe the find in the Sept. 15 Science. The lead author is Maria del Carmen Rodriguez Martinez of the National Institute of Anthropology and History in Veracruz, who received the block from the road builders.

The scientists regard the marks inscribed in the stone as script because they include 28 distinctive elements, such as signs depicting maize, parallel sets of eyes, and an animal skin. These signs appear in sequences that run across the block.

The signs’ precise meanings and the underlying rules for this writing system remain uncertain.

The relation of the Cascajal block to later New World writing is also fuzzy. The script may represent a regional invention that died out in relative obscurity. However, Houston suspects that it spread across southern Mexico. Wooden figurines from Olmec sites of about the same age have a few similar signs carved in the backs of their heads, he says.

Although the marks on the block are “suggestive” of writing, archaeologist Philip J. Arnold of Loyola University in Chicago takes a wait-and-see approach. Martinez and his coworkers need to find comparable signs on Olmec artifacts excavated from their original locations, Arnold says.

Archaeologist Christopher A. Pool of the University of Kentucky in Lexington also regards the new find cautiously. Aspects of the inscriptions on the block are unique, making them difficult to confirm as script, he notes. For instance, signs run horizontally across the stone, whereas the region’s later writing systems placed symbols in vertical columns.

Signs carved into the Cascajal block “may not be fully formed writing, but they’re close to it,” remarks linguist John S. Justeson of the State University of New York at Albany. He says that while the new find incorporates patterned symbols from Olmec art, it apparently lacks calendar notations and action representations, key elements of later writing systems in southern Mexico and Central America.

Houston says that his group plans to conduct new excavations near the quarry. The Cascajal block “is probably one of many such texts in the area,” he surmises.

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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