A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
When villagers in Veracruz, Mexico, found a scratched-up block of stone while building a road in the early 1990s, they could not have imagined how important it was.
(Courtesy Stephen Houston/©Science (drawing),Courtesy Michael D. Coe)
In 2006, careful study of the tablet showed it was made by the Olmec people and contains the earliest example of written language ever found in the Americas, predating Zapotec examples by several hundred years.
WHAT IT IS
Tablet with the oldest writing found in the Western Hemisphere
Olmec, the first complex society in Mesoamerica, flourished on the south coast of the Gulf of Mexico from as early as 1200 B.C. to about 400 B.C.
Early 900s B.C., Middle Classic Period, but may be older
In the early 1990s, in the small town of Cascajal, a short distance from the Olmec center of San Lorenzo, by local villagers quarrying an ancient mound for gravel to build a new road
Serpentine, a semi-hard metamorphic stone
14 1/8 x 8 1/4 x 5 1/8 inches; 26 pounds, 7 ounces
Researchers looked for patterns in the glyphs to determine whether the tablet contained more than just pretty pictures. It "knocks you on the head that it is writing and not just iconography or a sequence of symbols," says Stephen Houston, an archaeologist at Brown University. The tablet has all the hallmarks of written language, he says, including syntax patterns, word order, and repetition. Of the 28 glyphs, several are repeated, including the insect highlighted below. Though several of the symbols are known from other Olmec artifacts, researchers are skeptical about ever deciphering the script and do not know how it relates to the Mixe-Zoquean languages the Olmecs may have spoken. But other attributes of the block can tell archaeologists something about how it was used. Its relatively small size and the faintness of the writing suggest that it was a private document and not an inscription from a public monument. In addition, because the writing surface is slightly concave, the block may have been rubbed clean and written on again, a practice never before seen in this part of the world. The Cascajal Block ends the debate over whether the Olmecs had written language, and suggests they were capable of developing a codified legal system, passing on religious rituals, and conducting long-distance communcation and trade. Now archaeologists are on the lookout for more examples of their writing.