Researchers say symbols from an Olmec Indian site in Mexico, above, date back to 650 B. C., and are the Americas' earliest forms of writing.
The carvings on stone and ceramics were found near La Venta.
New Evidence of Early Form of Writing in Mexico
By JOHN NOBLE WILFORD
Centuries before the famously literate Maya, even before the Zapotecs, the Olmecs of ancient Mexico were carving symbols on stone and ceramics 2,600 years ago in what a team of archaeologists thinks is the earliest form of writing ever found in the New World.
In a report being published today, archaeologists led by Dr. Mary E. D. Pohl of Florida State University in Tallahassee say they discovered writing symbols, or glyphs, on a cylinder seal used to make imprints and on fragments of a greenstone plaque.
The artifacts, dated at about 650 B. C., were excavated near the prominent Olmec site of La Venta, close to the Gulf of Mexico in Tabasco State, in southeastern Mexico. The researchers said this was strong evidence that pre-Columbian writing originated on the coastal plain there.
Scholars had previously traced the earliest American writing to about 300 B. C. and to the Zapotec culture centered at Monte Albán, in Oaxaca State. Mayan writing developed some 500 years later and farther south in Mexico and Central America.
The new discovery has focused attention on the Olmec civilization, which flourished from 1,300 to 300 B. C., as innovative and a wellspring of most subsequent Mexican cultures. The Olmecs were best known until now only as the bold, mysterious sculptors of colossal stone heads carved with huge lips.
Writing in the journal Science, Dr. Pohl's group said the new artifacts "reveal that the key aspects of the Mesoamerican scripts were present in Olmec writing." The Olmec writing has not been deciphered, but several glyphs, the researchers said, shared several similarities with much later Mayan words.
The archaeologists also said the excavations produced compelling evidence of a connection between Olmec writing, the sacred 260-day calendar and kingship, all hallmarks of later Mesoamerican cultures.
"We're seeing evidence of a mother culture," Dr. Pohl said in a telephone interview.
Such a role for the Olmecs made sense, she said, because they may have been the "first known peoples in Mesoamerica to have a state-level political structure, and writing is a way to communicate power and influence."
Other scholars reacted to the new findings with fascination and caution.
As expected, several scholars raised questions about characterizing the glyphs as elements of true writing — whether they were simply pictures of objects or people, or represented spoken language. A few said they suspected the dates for the artifacts should be more recent.
"It's an interesting find, but we need to wait and see what it means," said Dr. Joyce Marcus, a University of Michigan archaeologist who is an authority on the Zapotecs.
Dr. Michael D. Coe of Yale, an authority on Mayan culture, said that until much more evidence of Olmec writing was uncovered, Dr. Pohl's interpretation would remain speculative and the Olmec role in early writing would be an open question.
"It's controversial, but that's all right," Dr. Coe said of the report. "It's worth publishing."
By a loose definition, Dr. Coe said, the glyphs on the artifacts are "certainly writing." In particular, he noted the drawing of a bird with symbols coming out. "This bird is talking — he's saying something," Dr. Coe explained. "One of those symbols looks very much like one of the Maya calendar glyphs, a day name."
Dr. Coe was referring to a bird, perhaps representing a king dressed as a bird, depicted on the excavated cylinder seal. Two glyphs emanate from the bird's beak, like words from modern-day cartoon figures. The image seems analogous to speech scrolls that were common in later Mayan art.
Dr. Pohl interpreted the words as meaning "king" and "3 Ajaw." The latter is the name of a day in the sacred calendar that could have been used as a personal name for a king.
The cylinder, the size of a human fist, was apparently used like a roller stamp. With ink or paint applied, the roller was used to spread the imprint of a pictograph or word symbol on cloth or over someone's body.
"Clothes and jewelry were important items of display to show your rank and status, so it would show you were part of the elite to be able to display your connection to the ruler," Dr. Pohl explained.
In their report, members of Dr. Pohl's group said they identified other glyphs incised on fragments of a greenstone plaque that was dug out of refuse deposits at the site of San Andrés, three miles from La Venta.
The evidence for writing in a second medium, the archaeologists said, strengthened "the argument that the writing system was indigenous" to that Olmec region.
The authors of the report, besides Dr. Pohl, were Dr. Kevin O. Pope of Geo Eco Arc Research, a Maryland company that specializes in geological and archaeological projects, and Dr. Christopher von Nagy of Tulane University, in New Orleans.
"I know this is very controversial," Dr. Pohl said in the interview. "We feel we have made a good case for writing in the Olmec culture, but we also recognize that there's more research to be done."