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Olmec hieroglyphs

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Olmec hieroglyphs

The Cascajal Block is a writing tablet-sized serpentinite slab which has been dated to the early first millennium BCE incised with hitherto unknown characters that may represent the earliest writing system in the New World. Archaeologist Stephen D. Houston of Brown University said that this discovery helps to "link the Olmec civilization to literacy, document an unsuspected writing system, and reveal a new complexity to [the Olmec] civilization."[1]

The Cascajal Block was discovered by road builders in the late 1990s in a pile of debris in the village of Lomas de Tacamichapa in the Veracruz lowlands in the ancient Olmec heartland. The block was found amidst ceramic shards and clay figurines and from these the block is dated to the Olmec archaeological culture's San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán phase, which ended c. 900 BCE, preceding the oldest Zapotec writing dated to about 500 BCE.[2][3] Archaeologists Carmen Rodriguez and Ponciano Ortiz of the National Institute of Anthropology and History of Mexico examined and registered it with government historical authorities. It weighs about 11.5 kg (25 lb) and measures 36 cm × 21 cm × 13 cm. Details of the find were published by researchers in the 15 September 2006 issue of the journal Science.[4]

Putative Olmec writing system

The Olmec flourished in the Gulf Coast region of Mexico, ca. 1250–400 BCE. The evidence for this writing system is based solely on the text on the Cascajal Block.

The block holds a total of 62 glyphs, some of which resemble plants such as corn and ananas, or animals such as insects and fish. Many of the symbols are more abstract boxes or blobs. The symbols on the Cascajal block are unlike those of any other writing system in Mesoamerica, such as in Mayan languages or Isthmian, another extinct Mesoamerican script. The Cascajal block is also unusual because the symbols apparently run in horizontal rows and "there is no strong evidence of overall organization. The sequences appear to be conceived as independent units of information".[5] All other known Mesoamerican scripts typically use vertical rows.

Assessment by archaeologists and other specialists

Authors of the report

  • Stephen D. Houston, who also worked on the study, said the text if decoded will decipher "earliest voices of Mesoamerican civilization."[1] "Some of the pictographic signs were frequently repeated, particularly ones that looked like an insect or a lizard." Houston suspected that "these might be signs alerting the reader to the use of words that sound alike but have different meanings—as in the difference between 'I' and 'eye' in English." He concluded, "the linear sequencing, the regularity of signs, the clear patterns of ordering, they tell me this is writing. But we don't know what it says."[6]
  • "This is extremely important because we never recognized this writing system, until this discovery," said archaeologist Karl Taube of the University of California Riverside, who was involved in the documentation and publication of the discovery. "We've known they have very elaborate art, and iconography, but this is the first strong indication that they had visually recorded speech."[7]
  • For Richard Diehl of the University of Alabama, the discovery announced in the journal Science amounted to rock-solid proof that the Olmecs had a form of writing. Diehl has believed "all along" that the Olmecs possessed the ability to write and discovery of the stone "corroborates my gut feelings."[8]

Additional support

  • William Saturno not involved in the study agreed with Houston that the horizontally arranged inscription shows patterns that are the hallmarks of true writing, including syntax and language-specific word order. "That's full-blown, legitimate text—written symbols taking the place of spoken words,"[9] said Saturno, a University of New Hampshire anthropologist and expert in Mesoamerican writing.
  • Mary Pohl at Florida State University is an expert on the Olmec. She said "One sign looks actually like a corn cob with silk coming out the top. Other signs are unique, and never before seen, like one of an insect…These objects—and thus probably the writing—had a special value in rituals…We see that the writing is very closely connected with ritual and the early religious beliefs, because they are taking the ritual carvings and putting them into glyphs and making writing out of them. And all of this is occurring in the context of the emergence of early kings and the development of a centralized power and stratified society."[10]
  • David Stuart, a University of Texas at Austin expert in Mesoamerican writing, was not connected with the discovery, but reviewed the study for Science. He said "To me, this find really does bring us back to this idea that at least writing and a lot of the things we associate with Mesoamerican culture really did have their origin in this region."[11]
  • Lisa LeCount, an associate professor of archaeology at the University of Alabama, theorized that, if it is a crown, it might have been carved into the stone to establish leadership. "The stone could have been used as a tool by an emerging king to validate his exalted position and to legitimize his right to the throne. Only the elite in that society would have known how to read and write."[8] LeCount said there should be no question that the Olmecs represented the "mother culture" and predated the Mayans, whose writings and buildings remain to this day.
  • Caterina Magni, an Associate Professor of Prehispanic Archaeology at the University of Paris IV: Paris-Sorbonne, presents a new interpretation of the Cascajal Block. Initially, the author interpreted each glyph in an isolated way. In the second time, C. Magni proposes a religious reading of the text. "This elaborate code supports and expresses an extremely sophisticated manner of thinking, which refers primarily to religious notions but also, to a lesser extent, to the socio-political domain."[12]


Some archaeologists are sceptical about the importance of the tablet:

  • For David Grove, an archaeologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville who was not involved in the research, the tablet "looked like a fake to me because the symbols are laid out in horizontal rows,"[13] unlike the region's other writing systems, he said.
  • Archaeologist Christopher Pool of the University of Kentucky in Lexington has known about the tablet for a couple years. "I've always been a little skeptical of it,"[13] Pool said. "For one, it's unique," he continued. Another critical issue, Pool adds, is that when Rodriguez and Ortiz retrieved the tablet, it was already removed from the ground, taking it out of its original archaeological context.
  • Max Schvoerer, professor at the Université Michel de Montaigne Bordeaux 3, and founder of the Laboratoire de Physique appliquée à l'Archéologie, said "Unfortunately, the authors determined the age of the block only indirectly, by studying ceramics shards found at the site, in the absence of a well identified and dated level of occupation." [14]

Formal criticism

The most comprehensive criticism was published in Science magazine, the publisher of the original study, on March 9, 2007. In a letter, archaeologists Karen Bruhns and Nancy Kelker raise five points of concern:[15]

  1. The block was found in a pile of bulldozer debris and cannot be reliably dated.
  2. The block is unique. There is no other known example of Olmec drawing, much less writing, on a serpentine slab.
  3. All other Mesoamerican writing systems are written either vertically or linearly. The glyphs on the block are arranged in neither format but instead "randomly bunch".
  4. As pointed out by the original authors, some of the glyphs do appear on other Olmec artifacts, but have never been heretofore identified as writing, only as decorative motifs.
  5. "What we can only describe as the 'cootie' glyph (#1/23/50) fits no known category of Mesoamerican glyph and, together with the context of the discovery, strongly suggests a practical joke".

David Freidel and F. Kent Reilly III[16] argue that the Cascajal Block is authentic. They propose that the incised symbols on the block represent the contents of three sacred bundles arranged broadly horizontally,to be read in boustrophon fashion from top to bottom and alternatively left to right and right to left. They argue that the majority of the symbols on the block are found in the established corpus of Middle Formative art and many are otherwise part of iconographically comprehensible compositions that are designed to be read pictographically and not as script encoding spoken language. Rather than regard the Cascajal Block as an epistemological dead-end, the conclusion if it is identified as a unique script, they identify the block as a key to understanding the arrangement of sacred objects cached to memorialize acts of divination, a pervasive ritual practice well attested in the archaeology of Formative period Mesoamerica.

A rebuttal to the criticism by the authors of the original study was published directly following the letter:

  1. Other critical Mesoamerican finds, as well as the Rosetta stone, were also found without provenance.
  2. Such inscriptions are faint and may as yet be unseen on previously discovered slabs.
  3. The signs are in a "purposeful" pattern.
  4. "All known hieroglyphic systems in the world relate to pre-existing iconography or codified symbolism", and therefore it is not surprising that the Cascajal glyphs appear in other contexts as motifs.
  5. The 'cootie' glyph can be found in "three-dimensional" form on San Lorenzo Monument 43.

See also



External links

  • BBC News, 14 September 2006.
  • Oldest writing in the New World discovered in Veracruz, Mexico from EurekAlert, 14 September 2006.
  • New York Times, 15 September 2006.
  • New York Times, 15 September 2006.
  • Earliest New World Writing Discovered by Christopher Joyce for NPR, 15 September 2006.
  • Unknown Writing System Uncovered On Ancient Olmec Tablet from Science a GoGo, 15 September 2006.
  • Stone Slab Bears Earliest Writing in Americas by Andrew Bridges for AP, 15 September 2006.
  • Michael Everson, 18 September 2006.
  • The Cascajal Block: The Earliest Precolumbian Writing Joel Skidmore, Precolumbia Mesoweb Press, Accessed September 19, 2006.
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