Writing at the Start

Article excerpt

AN OLMEC SITE in Mexico has yielded what may be the earliest form of writing ever found in the Americas. A ceramic cylinder seal and greenstone plaque fragments found at San Andres--in the state of Tabasco on the Gulf of Mexico--date from 650 B.C. and were probably used for body decoration during a ceremonial feast, according to lead researcher Professor Mary E. D. Pohl of Florida State University.

Living between 1200 and 400 B.C., the Olmec are most well known for creating five-foot to eleven-foot tall stone heads with broad noses and short faces. Predating the Aztecs and the Maya, they are considered pioneers in Mesoamerica for their achievements in politics, religion, and economics. According to Pohl, this new find shows yet another way the Olmecs led the region in development and challenges the assertion that the Maya or the Zapotecs were the first to develop written communication.

"This falls into line with what we see with the Olmecs being in a group of competing societies but really the first among equals," Pohl explains. "They were the people who were generating a lot of what we know of Mesoamerican culture: the standards for kings, the use of greenstone, the use of writing, the use of pyramids."

Pohl and team members Kevin O. Pope of Geo Eco Arc Research and Christopher von Nagy of Tulane University found the artifacts during excavations in 1998 at the small site of San Andres, located three miles from the most famous Olmec site of La Venta. They then spent the next several years confirming and refining the estimated date of their discovery and studying the markings.

There are two types of artifacts. The greenstone fragments are the size of fingernails and although their exact meaning is undecipherable, the team has positively identified the markings as glyphs signifying words or concepts. …


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