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Earliest Mesoamerican Writing? Volume 56 Number 2, March/April 2003
by Colleen P. Popson

[image]Symbols on this Olmec seal are similar to later Mayan glyphs. (Christopher von Nagy) [LARGER IMAGE]

Recently found 2,650-year-old inscribed greenstone plaques and a ceramic cylinder seal at the Olmec site of San Andrés on the Gulf of Mexico have been touted as the earliest evidence for Mesoamerican writing. The artifacts, associated with an elite feast, were probably used for personal adornment, according to the project's lead researcher, Mary Pohl of Florida State University.

The cylinder seal depicts a bird, possibly representing a royal figure, with symbols emanating from its mouth that resemble later Mayan hieroglyphs. One of the symbols recalls the ajaw glyph, which is both a calendrical day name and the word for king. The San Andrés researchers believe these symbols represent words or ideas and reflect the first stages of logographic writing. "The Olmec," says Pohl, "were the first [in Mesoamerica] to have large urban centers with monumental architecture and sculpture. We believe these urban centers are evidence for an early state society and suggest that writing was closely associated with state formation and was a way of publicizing the king."

Distinguishing between symbols and writing in Mesoamerica is confusing because even the most developed later scripts incorporate symbols. "Most experts agree the Olmec created very complex symbols, often arranged in a complicated way," says Mesoamerican epigrapher Stephen Houston, "and it's reasonable that the Olmec would have been involved at a late date with the origins of writing, but this new 'evidence' isn't enough to prove that case. The elements coming from the bird's mouth are simply another example of the sophisticated iconography of the time."

Houston suggests that true writing should be separated from the image and should eventually independently represent the patterns of language. Further, he notes, the greenstone pieces are fragments and occur in isolation. "How is one to know what they're connected to?" he asks. "How does one evaluate their context?"

Pohl remains resolute. "It's logical that we would find a logographic stage of writing before we get full-blown texts and a syllabic system. It will be difficult to identify the transitions between stages of writing, but I'm confident that there's more evidence to be found."

© 2003 by the Archaeological Institute of America