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Cascajal stone slab shows oldest New World writing

10.11.2006 -- A research team recently announced that a script-covered block of stone found in a southern Mexican gravel quarry in 1999 represent the oldest writing yet found in the Americas. The quarry where the script was found is adjacent to an archaeological site near Veracruz, the center of the ancient Olmec civilization.

Most of the site has been severely damaged by quarrying activity for road construction, although there is evidence of at least four mounds and an open area. It is apparent that Cascajal has at least two primary components, one Early Formative (San Lorenzo phase, ca 1200-900 BC) and one Terminal Classic (Villa Alta phase, AD 800-900). The Early Formative is evidenced by ceramic sherds, figurine fragments, and broken groundstone artifacts; the Terminal Classic is predominantly Fine Orange ceramics. Because the glyphs have no connection to Terminal Classic writing styles, the block most likely dates to the latter part of the Early Formative, approximately 900 BC, fully 500 years older than the Maya glyphs discovered recently at San Bartolo.

The images found on the stone slab, known as the Cascajal block, show an early form of Olmec writing which dates nearly 3,000 years ago, and is the first solid evidence of a true written language. The Cascajal script is the first new writing system discovered in decades and it is distinctively different from the writing of later Mesoamerican cultures.

Previous examples of Olmec writing extend back no more than 2,600 years. Samples of Mayan writing in Central America date to as early as 2,200 to 2,400 years ago.

Repeating symbols

The slab, which weighs about 12 kilograms and measures 36 cm long, 21 cm wide and 12 cm deep, is blank on all sides except one, which has been ground smooth and inscribed with 62 symbols of a hieroglyphic script. The symbols are arranged in rows and some are repeated, similar to other written languages Three of the 28 distinct symbols appear four times, six appear three times, and 12 appear twice. Some symbols resemble objects including an insect, an ear of corn and a throne.

The repeated paring of signs – such as a throne with a mat-like symbol – suggest poetic couplets, a form used by later cultures in the region. The meaning of of the script remains a mystery, since this is a single inscription, and not part of a language with which we are familiar. The script may represent a regional invention that died out in relative obscurity. Wooden figurines from Olmec sites of about the same age have a few similar signs carved in the backs of their heads.

Reusable slab

With rock rare in the area, researchers speculate that the Olmec normally wrote on wood or paper, which would have decayed long ago. Since the inscribed side of the Cascajal slab appears to have been ground down, the Olmec may have reused the slab by grinding earlier inscriptions away and then writing over the area.

[01] Jeff Hecht. Oldest writing in the New World discovered. 14 September 2006. Accessed 11 October 2006.
[02] K. Kris Hirst. The Cascajal Block. About Archaeology. 16 September 2006. Accessed 11 October. 2006.
[03] Bruce Bower. Scripted Stone: Ancient block may bear America's oldest writing. Science News. Washington, DC. Vol. 170, No. 12, 16 September 2006.

Information gathered for educational purposes under the "fair use" provision of the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976.



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