Writing on Stone May Be Oldest in the Americas
Published: September 14, 2006
A stone slab found in the state of Veracruz in Mexico bears
3,000-year-old writing previously unknown to scholars, according to
archaeologists who say it is an example of the oldest script ever
discovered in the Western Hemisphere.
The order and pattern of carved symbols appeared to be that of a
true writing system, according to the Mexican scientists who have
studied the slab and colleagues from the United States. It had
characteristics strikingly similar to imagery of the Olmec
civilization, considered the earliest in pre-Columbian America,
Finding a heretofore-unknown writing system is a rare event. One of
the last such discoveries, scholars say, was the Indus Valley
script, identified by archaeologists in 1924.
The inscription on the stone slab, with 62 distinct signs, some of
them repeated, has been tentatively dated to at least 900 B.C., and
possibly earlier. That is 400 years or more before writing had been
known to exist in Mesoamerica, the region from central Mexico
through much of Central America ? and by extension, to exist
anywhere in the Hemisphere.
Scientists had not previously found any script that was
unambiguously associated with the Olmec culture, which flourished
along the Gulf of Mexico in Vera Cruz and Tobasco well before the
Zapotec and Maya people rose to prominence elsewhere in the region.
Until now, the Olmec were known mainly for the colossal stone heads
they created and displayed at monumental buildings in their ruling
The inscribed stone slab was discovered by Maria del Carmen
Rodriguez of the National Institute of Anthropology and History of
Mexico and by Ponciano Ortiz of Veracruz University. The
archaeologists, who are husband and wife, are the lead authors of
the report of the find, which will be published Friday in the
The signs incised on the 26-pound stone, the researchers said in
the report, “link the Olmec to literacy, document an unsuspected
writing system and reveal a new complexity to this civilization.”
Noting that the text “conforms to all expectations of writing,” the
researchers wrote that the sequences of signs reflected “patterns of
language, with the probable presence of syntax and
language-dependant word orders.” Several paired sequences of signs,
scholars said, have prompted speculation that the text may contain
couplets of poetry.
Experts who have examined the symbols on the stone slab said they
would need many more examples before they could hope to decipher
them and read what is written. It appeared, they said, that the
symbols in the inscription were unrelated to later Mesoamerican
scripts, suggesting that this Olmec writing might have been
practiced for only a few generations and may never have spread to
Stephen D. Houston of Brown University, a co-author of the report
and an authority on ancient writing systems, acknowledged that this
was a puzzle, and would probably be emphasized by some scholars who
question the influence of the Olmec on the course of later
But Dr. Houston called the discovery tantalizing, saying, “It could
be the beginning of a new era of focus on the Olmec civilization.”
Other participants in the research include Michael D. Coe of Yale;
Karl A. Taube of the University of California, Riverside; and
Alfredo Delgado Calderon of the National Institute of Anthropology
Mesoamerica researchers who were not involved in the Veracruz
discovery agreed that the signs appeared to be a true script, and
that the slab could be expected to inspire more intensive study of
the Olmecs, whose civilization emerged about 1200 B. C. and had all
but disappeared by 400 B. C.
In an accompanying article in Science, Mary Pohl, an anthropologist
at Florida State University who has excavated Olmec ruins, was
quoted as saying, “This is an exciting discovery of great
A few other researchers were skeptical of the dating of the
inscription, noting that the stone was uncovered in a gravel quarry
where it and other artifacts were jumbled and may have been out of
their original context.
The discovery team said that ceramic shards, clay figurines and
other broken artifacts accompanying the stone appeared to be from a
particular phase of Olmec culture that ended about 900 B. C. But
they acknowledged that the disarray at the site made it impossible
to determine whether the stone had originally been in a place
relating to the governing elite or to religious ceremony.
Richard A. Diehl, a specialist in Olmec research at the University
of Alabama and another co-author of the report, said, “My
colleagues and I are absolutely convinced the stone is authentic.”
The stone slab first came to light in 1999, when road builders
digging gravel came across it among debris from an ancient mound at
Cascajal, a place the archaeologists called the “Olmec heartland.”
The village is on an island in southern Veracruz about a mile from
San Lorenzo, where ruins have been found of the dominant Olmec
city, which stood from 1200 B. C. to 900 B. C.
When the stone surfaced, Dr. Rodriguez and Dr. Ortiz were called
in, and quickly recognized the potential importance of the find.
Only after six years of further excavations searching for more
writing specimens, and comparative analysis with previously known
Olmec iconography, did the two archaeologists invite other
Mesoamerica scholars to join the study earlier this year. Though
some other reported examples of Olmec “writing” in recent years
failed to stand up to scrutiny, the team concluded that the
Cascajal stone, as it is being called, was the real thing.
The tiny, delicate symbols are incised on the concave top surface
of a block of soft stone that measures about 14 inches long, 8
inches wide and 5 inches thick.
Dr. Houston, who was a leader in deciphering Maya writing, examined
the stone looking for clues that the symbols were true writing and
not just iconography unrelated to a language. He said in an
interview that he detected regular patterns and order, suggesting
“a text segmented into what almost look like sentences, with clear
beginnings and clear endings.”
Some of the pictographic signs were frequently repeated, Dr.
Houston said, particularly ones that looked like an insect or a
lizard. He 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.
All in all, Dr. Houston 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.”
Original article posted here.