Oldest Writing in New World Discovered

The New York Times is running an article announcing, “Writing on Stone May Be Oldest in the Americas,” as is the National Geographic News‘ “Oldest Writing in New World Discovered, Scientists Say.” Both articles are writing in reference to a brand new paper in the latest Science. The lead author, Maria del Carmen Rodríguez Martínez, is from the Centro del Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, her paper’s abstract summarizes the important announcement of…

“A block (image to the right, click for a larger version) with a hitherto unknown system of writing has been found in the Olmec heartland of Veracruz, Mexico. Stylistic and other dating of the block places it in the early first millennium before the common era, the oldest writing in the New World, with features that firmly assign this pivotal development to the Olmec civilization of Mesoamerica.”

The paper in Science is aptly titled, “Oldest Writing in the New World (DOI: 10.1126/science.1131492.)

According to the New York Times piece, the order and pattern of carved symbols warrant it to be a true writing system, and the [26 pound] stone slab is 3,000-year-old, making it the of the oldest script ever discovered in the Western Hemisphere. Actually, 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. The stone slab was accidentally discovered 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. I don’t know where the statement that the last discovery of its kind was the Indus Valley script, identified by archaeologists in 1924, because I can think of several examples such as this one, “symbols on 7,000 year old pottery may provide insight into the origin of Chinese characters” or “A is for Ancient, I is for Israeli, F is for Phoenician” that both document really recent discoveries of ancient written language artifacts. The New York Times article describes the artifact with some more detail,

“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 cities.”

As usual, there is some confusion to the date of the artifact because as some other researchers have voiced out they are skeptical of the dating of the inscription because the stone was uncovered in a gravel quarry where it and other artifacts were jumbled and may have been out of their original context.

In response Maria’s 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.

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