Writing on Olmec Slab Is Hemisphere’s Oldest

Times Staff Writer

Archeologists working on the gulf coast of Mexico have uncovered a 3,000-year-old stone tablet that bears the oldest writing in the Western Hemisphere and the first text unambiguously linked to the Olmec empire -- the enigmatic civilization believed to be the progenitor of the Aztecs and Maya.

The 26-pound tablet, about the size of a legal pad, bears 62 symbols arrayed in a manner suggesting an organized text.

“We have long thought that the Olmec would have writing,” said archeologist William A. Saturno of the University of New Hampshire, who was not involved in the discovery. “This block is finally the evidence everyone has been waiting for.”

Scientists may never be able to translate the text unless they find many more examples of Olmec writing, said archeologist Stephen D. Houston of Brown University in Rhode Island, a co-author of the report published today in the journal Science.


But “if we can decode it, it gives us a chance of hearing their voices and finding out what they considered important and worth recording,” he said.

The Olmec flourished in south-central Mexico for more than 1,000 years before they mysteriously disappeared, a few centuries before the rise of the classic Maya culture about AD 300. The Olmec were the first civilization in Mesoamerica, and at their height they constructed large pyramids and created massive stone sculptures. They built the first cities in the region and established a wide-ranging trading system that stretched across Central America.

The tablet dates from about 1000 BC to 900 BC and is at least 300 years older than any purported writing that archeologists have discovered in the region. The oldest previous example of what can be considered a “full-blown written language” in this hemisphere, Saturno said, was the so-called Tuxtla Script, discovered in the same region and dating from about AD 100 to AD 200.

Both are comparatively young compared with the oldest known written language, developed in the Middle East by the Sumerians about 5,000 years ago.

Virtually all examples of purported Mesoamerican writing that have been found previously and that date to the first millennium BC are isolated sets consisting of just one or a few glyphs, or symbols. Critics have charged that such discoveries represent merely pictures or identifiers rather than true writing.

With the new find, Houston said, “suddenly we are aware of the possibility that those far shorter sequences may be part of the same writing system.”

Beginning about 1600 BC, the Olmec settled a highly fertile region characterized by swampy lowlands punctuated by low hills and ridges.

They fished in landlocked ponds and grew maize, beans and squash. Their large pyramids were surrounded by rectangular huts made from plants and adobe, with stone drainage systems under their communities. They harvested rubber -- in fact, their name means “rubber people” in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs -- and invented a ritual ballgame played by the elite in stone arenas scattered throughout the region.


What the Olmec called themselves is not known.

They are perhaps most famous for the massive stone heads they sculpted to grace their monumental architecture.

They also developed calendars and the concept of zero. “They had so many other things ... that it would seem odd if they didn’t have the concept of writing,” Saturno said.

In fact, he added, they started making paper about 1500 BC, beating the bark of trees into thin sheets. “What else were they making the paper for” besides writing, he said.


Because of the climate, no paper has survived from that period.

The tablet almost didn’t survive, either. It was unearthed in 1999 by road builders digging gravel from an ancient mound at Cascajal, a village on an island about a mile from San Lorenzo, an Olmec site.

A local archeologist called in Maria del Carmen Rodriguez Martinez and Ponciano Ortiz Ceballos of the National Institute of Anthropology and History, who are lead authors of the Science report. They assembled the team that analyzed the tablet this spring.

Pottery shards excavated along with the tablet helped date it to the beginning of the first millennium BC, as did similarities between its glyphs and symbols found on artwork from that period. There probably will always be controversy about the date and the tablet’s origin, however, because the slab was not found in its original location.


“We’re quite comfortable with the date we’ve assigned it,” Houston said.

The serpentine, or greenstone, tablet bears 29 distinct glyphs, some of which are repeated as many as four times. It appears to read horizontally from left to right -- unlike most other texts from the region, which read vertically.

Some of the symbols are clearly derived from natural objects, such as insects, corn, awls and thrones.

From the way the symbols are laid out, “it is crushingly obvious that we are in the presence of writing,” Houston said.


“This has a large number of symbols, the symbols are repeated, and they are repeated in order,” Saturno said. “There are phrases being written, which really strengthens the argument that ... this is a writing system -- a way to make spoken language permanent.”

The stone itself is convex on all sides except for the face bearing the inscription, which is concave. That suggests, Houston said, that the text may have been repeatedly erased and rewritten.

The small size indicates the tablet was for private use, possibly for religious ceremonies, and not a public monument.