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Written in stone

September 14, 2006 By Kerri Smith This article courtesy of Nature News.

A previously unknown form of writing and the oldest piece of text ever discovered in the Americas has been unearthed in southern Mexico. Kerri Smith tries to decipher the questions posed by ancient scribes.

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What has been found?

Archaeologists have unearthed a block of stone from the Veracruz region of Mexico that is inscribed with a mysterious and hitherto unknown script.

By comparing their find to other fragments of ceramics, clay and stone found in the same place, Ma. del Carmen Rodriguez Martinez at the Central Institute of Anthropology and History in Veracruz, Mexico, and her colleagues dated the slab to 900 BC. That makes it the earliest example of writing ever to be discovered in the Americas1. They think it was made by the Olmec civilization of Mesoamerica, the first organized civilization in this part of Mexico.

How old is that, for the Americas?

The oldest previous examples from this region were an inscribed greenstone statuette and some cylindrical seals, used to imprint patterns into soft materials such as clay. These have been dated to about 650 BC2.

It is possible that the Olmec civilization, which was around from about 1200 BC, developed a writing system much earlier than this block suggests, but that there is no surviving evidence of it. "My suspicion is they were writing on perishable media, like wood," says Stephen Houston at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, who is co-author of the study in Science.

What about elsewhere?

Much older examples exist elsewhere in the world although the dates are controversial. According to Richard Parkinson, an expert on Egyptian inscriptions at the British Museum, London, the oldest examples of writing have been found in Egypt and the ancient region of Mesopotamia. These date to between 3200-3500 BC, says Parkinson. The Egyptian writings take the form of tags used for linen that show where the products came from.

Another contender is the Indus script found in Pakistan, which could be as old as 5,500 years. But experts are divided over whether this is true writing it could simply be a collection of symbols or pictures.

So not all inscriptions are 'true' writing?

The key to a true writing system is that it must convey a language as opposed to an idea. A picture of a bird, for example, could mean 'bird' to some and 'eagle' to others, whereas a written version would dictate the actual word.

The latest Olmec script is made up of symbols that sometimes resemble real-world items. But it is likely to relate to language because it shows a linear order with repeated symbols, says Houston.

Does anyone know what the new tablet says?

The 'Rosetta Stone' helpfully had the same text written in both Egyptian hieroglyphs and Greek, but nothing similar has been found for the Olmec script. The Olmec block, however, does contain a few symbols that turn up in later writings and that have been deciphered: the combination of two rectangular symbols (numbers 19 and 20 in the picture) are thought to make up a word meaning something like 'rulership'. But the block's full meaning cannot be decoded without further examples, says Houston.

Are there still some writings we can't decipher?

Yes. There are more than a dozen examples of scripts that no one has been able to crack. Two of the most famous examples are the Indus script and a script termed Rongorongo, used on Easter Island.

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  1. Rodriguez Martinez M.D.C., et al. Science, 313 . 1610 - 1614 (2006).
  2. Pohl M. E. D, et al. Science, 298 . 1984 - 1987 (2002).


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