Oldest Writing in the New World

Sept. 14, 2006 — -- In a pile of debris near Veracruz, Mexico, a road-building crew found a stone block, on which someone had carved seven rows of simple pictures.

Scientists, writing in Friday's edition of the journal Science, say the pictures are almost certainly words, nearly 3,000 years old. They were probably carved by members of the Olmec tribe, who dominated Central America at the time. There's no guessing yet what the pictograms say, but if the research team is right, this block is the oldest writing ever found in the Western Hemisphere.

"What's exciting is that it makes this first civilization in Mexico and Central America literate," said Stephen Houston, an anthropologist at Brown University who co-wrote the study. "It gives these people a voice. They're chattering away in this writing system, and it would be enormously important for any understanding of the American past to hear what it is that they find interesting and worth recording in stone."

The stone has come to be known as the Cascajal block. It weighs 26 pounds, is about the size of a legal size piece of paper, and cannot possibly be from the swampy part of southern Mexico where it was found. Archeologists know that the Olmec people brought stone from hundreds of miles away, much of it for the giant statues they made.

Some of the symbols resemble corn cobs, insects, or shells. But what's more important is that they appear to be part of a writing system because the symbols repeat.

There are 62 symbols in all on the stone, but only 28 different ones. Three of them appear four times on the stone; another six appear three times. Houston said those are hints of key words in the document.

"Writing is, of course, linear," he said. "It's arranged in these sequences of signs, and because it's linear, and appears to be sequenced in that fashion, there has to be a reason for it, and the reason would be that it is recording the elements of speech. We have verbs, we have nouns, we have things that have to appear in a certain order."

But what do they say? There is no Olmec equivalent of the Rosetta stone, which made it possible for archeologists to translate Egyptian hieroglyphs into Greek. Houston said unless more Olmec writing is found, the chances of decoding the Cascajal block are slim.

It is quite possible, the researchers concede in their paper, that the the writing is not genuine, that they've tripped across something newer than the Olmecs, created for a reason they may never know.

For that reason, they said they want to be cautious.

"We don't want to shower it with a lot of speculation," said Houston. "We just want to show it out there, and see what other people make of it."

What's clear from various markings on the stone, said Houston, is that the stone was erased and reused -- that its surface was scraped clean more than once, leaving it slightly concave.

"It's just baffling," he said.