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Epi-Olmec Decipherment July 29, 1997
by Angela M.H. Schuster

Study of a newly discovered column of hieroglyphic text on the La Mojarra stela, a four-ton basalt slab discovered in 1986 and bearing one of the oldest examples of complex writing in the New World, has confirmed the accuracy of translations published four years ago by epigraphers John S. Justeson of the State University of New York, Albany, and Terrence Kaufman of the University of Pittsburgh. The eroded text consists of 34 glyphs, most of which appear on the front of the monument in a 21-column text carved above the figure of a warrior-king.

In 1993 Justeson and Kaufman identified the script carved on the stela as pre-proto-Sokean, an epi- or post-Olmec predecessor of five languages now spoken in the Mexican states of Veracruz, Tabasco, Chiapas, and Oaxaca. The frontal text, which includes two long-count dates equivalent to May 1, A.D. 143 and June 23, 156, describes the warrior's rise to kingship through years of warfare and ritual activity, and mentions the warrior-king's aids, in particular a shaman who was instrumental in rites associated with his accession. According to Justeson and Kaufman battles mentioned on the front of the stela were timed according to the position of Venus in the constellation Scorpius. The new text says that the ruler held a yet-to-be-deciphered title for 12 or 13 years and that he was able to transform himself into an animal. It also alludes to a human sacrifice mentioned on the front of the stela, perhaps that of his brother-in-law in 157.

"We were excited to recover so much of this column of glyphs," says Justeson, noting that the text has expanded the corpus of known pre-proto-Sokean writing by seven percent. "The main thing we need for advancing the decipherment of epi-Olmec script is more text data." Until this discovery, the script was known only from two complete texts--a fairly long one on a small nephrite figurine known as the Tuxtla Statuette, found south of Tres Zapotes in 1902, and a shorter one on a pottery mask in a private collection--and a fragmentary inscription on a potsherd from Chiapa de Corzo. A few pre-proto-Sokean glyphs also appear on three badly weathered stelae at Cerro de las Mesas and one at Tres Zapotes. Regarding the newfound text Kaufman adds, "That a sequence of this length can be read and understood according to our previously deciphered sign values and spelling rules amounts to a proof of the correctness of our decipherment." Mexican archaeologist Sergio Vásquez and geologist Fernando Muñiz discovered the text in November 1995 as the stela was readied for permanent display at the Museo de Antropología in Xalapa, Veracruz.

© 1997 by the Archaeological Institute of America