Scripted Stone: Ancient Block May Bear Americas' Oldest Writing

By Bower, B. | Science News, September 16, 2006 | Go to article overview
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Scripted Stone: Ancient Block May Bear Americas' Oldest Writing


Bower, B., Science News


Road builders in southern Mexico discovered a script-covered block of stone among the rubble in a gravel quarry in 1999. A research team has now announced that the marks on the slab represent the oldest writing yet discovered in the Americas.

The quarry where the script was found abuts an archaeological site, near Veracruz, in what was the heartland of the ancient Olmec civilization. The imagery used in the writing indicates that the artifact, known as the Cascajal block, displays an early form of Olmec writing dating to nearly 3,000 years ago, says Stephen D. Houston of Brown University in Providence, R.I.

Previous examples of Olmee writing extend back no more than 2,650 years (SN: 12/7/02, p. 355). Samples of Mayan writing in Central America date to as early as 2,200 to 2,400 years ago (SN: 1/21/06, p. 45).

The rectangular Cascajal block weighs 12 kilograms. It's 36 centimeters long, 21 em wide, and 13 em thick. On one side, the artifact contains 62 carved signs.

"This is an unambiguous example of writing," Houston says.

He and his coworkers describe the find in the Sept. 15 Science. The lead author is Carmen Rodriguez Martinez of the National Institute of Anthropology and History in Veracruz, who received the block from the road builders.

The scientists regard the marks inscribed in the stone as script because they include 28 distinctive elements, such as signs depicting maize, parallel sets of eyes, and an animal skin. These signs appear in sequences that run across the block.

The signs' precise meanings and the underlying rules for this writing system remain uncertain.

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