Anthro prof helps date oldest writing sample in Western Hemisphere

Deciphering the block's meaning poses future challenge

Tuesday, October 3, 2006

A team of archaeologists including Professor of Anthropology Stephen Houston recently reported the discovery of what appears to be the oldest writing in the Western Hemisphere. The finding, which was published Sept. 15 by Science Magazine, garnered a slew of mentions in national media publications, including the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune.

Houston said the finding of a written record carved into a serpentine stone in Mexico, which dates back to around 900 B.C., marks a “once-in-a-lifetime” event. Careful analysis of the “Cascajal Stone,” named for the village where it was found and the area surrounding the village, has led researchers to conclude the writing sample is at least 3,000 years old and was produced by the Olmec civilization, which is often regarded as the first major civilization in Central America. Road diggers cutting through gravel mounds in Veracruz, Mex., originally uncovered the Cascajal block in 1999.

The Sept. 15 article in Science was authored by a team of archaeologists from Mexico and the United States. Subsequent analysis of the finding revealed that the stone contains 62 symbols arranged in organized lines of text with sequences of varying length. Researchers believe one person carved all the symbols using two different blades, one for blunt outlines and another for more detailed incisions.

Until now, Mayan writing from 400 to 300 B.C. was the earliest writing found in the Western Hemisphere. But anthropologists have long suspected that the Olmecs, the “mother civilization” of later Mexican cultures, had a written language.

This society “had elaborate and consistent religious symbolism used over a wide area, which suggests a highly developed theology,” Houston said, noting that Olmecs were also talented stone carvers and engineers. The Olmecs’ famous colossal carved heads are one example of their enduring influence.

“All of what we call Mesoamerica basically starts with Olmec,” said Michael Coe, an archaeologist at Yale University and another author of the Science article. “They started cultural traditions that were not to die out until Spaniards came in.”

The researchers do not see any clear links between the Olmec writing sample and later Mayan writing. But Coe said the fact that writing even existed and can be dated back to the Olmecs likely affected later societies.

“The idea that their predecessors had had a visual system that could communicate across space and across time … we call this stimulus diffusion, just the idea of writing was in the air for a long time,” he said.

The block, with its recurring symbols, contains compelling evidence of a syntactical or organized language system that allowed users to communicate more than just imagery.

“With iconography the ordering doesn’t necessarily make any difference,” Houston said. This makes iconography distinct from writing, which employs signs that can only be understood “in a certain order.”

Until now, an example of such a sequence remained elusive. With other Olmec carvings, Houston said, “the problem was the sequences were not long enough to clinch the fact that it’s writing.”

Houston’s extensive and influential work deciphering Mayan language has given him an appreciation for the way written samples offer a direct glimpse into the lives of ancient peoples. Language samples left behind by the Mayans give people a sense of “their notion of experience, what it was like to live and be human,” he said.

Zachary Nelson, a postdoctoral research associate in anthropology at Brown, also emphasized the importance of writing in an e-mail to The Herald.

“Writing adds to the archaeology because it provides details that you can not reconstruct from broken pots and stone tools. …Writing adds that extra dimension which makes dead cultures come to metaphorical life,” Nelson wrote.

Examining the stone

Houston and Coe traveled to the site last March to collaborate with Mexican archaeologists and first authors of the paper Ma. del Carmen Rodríguez Martínez and Alfredo Delgado Calderón. When the researchers arrived, Houston said the block could be found, along with other ruins, in the possession of the “appointed guardian for cultural matters.”

The stone belongs to the village where it was found, but researchers were allowed to analyze it. Houston said this investigation involved two crucial questions.

The first concerned the artifact’s placement in its proper historical time period. This task was complicated by the fact that the stone was turned up by road diggers rather than in a controlled archaeological dig. Support for dating the stone came from both external evidence relating to other artifacts from that period as well as internal evidence provided by the symbols on the stone itself, which strongly resemble other Olmec carvings and icons.

Houston and colleagues used high-resolution photography and digital technology to assess the stone’s features. Radiocarbon dating placed the stone between 1200 and 900 B.C., at least 800 years older than the earliest piece of known writing in this hemisphere, Coe said.

Even more challenging, Houston said, will be an assessment of the writing’s meaning. This will require a point of comparison, called a biscript or triscript, allowing the unknown language to be paired with a known language or languages.

Houston said the relative lack of regional excavation explains the complete dearth of analyzed Olmec writing samples. Another possibility, he noted, is that “these texts were carved on perishable media – things that just don’t last in this tropical environment.”

Next, archaeologists will return to the Cascajal region and search for more writing samples. Coe said it is unlikely the stone will ever be deciphered. “It’s hard even when you’ve got hundreds of samples, and we’ve only got one,” he said.

The possibility of deciphering Olmec writing, though currently unlikely, would open a new window into Olmec life.

“Writing does lots of things for us,” Houston said. “It can record religious information, but also economic information, the way goods are shipped around. It allows you the capacity to record information beyond the reach of human memory, to transmit messages over long distances and over time.”

Jenna Berthiaume ’08, an anthropology concentrator who has worked with Houston, said the existence of the stone “speaks volumes about that society’s level of advancement, but what’s really interesting is when we can decipher that text and see what this particular society found important to record.”

Zoe Agoos ’07, also an anthropology concentrator, said the study of written artifacts requires consideration of both pictorial and linguistic clues. “The whole writing system is a visual (and) verbal puzzle because it’s pictures and language combined in one and figuring out what’s relevant and what isn’t,” she said.

Agoos said working with Houston is like having access to a “human encyclopedia.”

“He’ll say, ‘I just got this e-mail, they just dug this up … what’s coming to us is so new, it feels like a new frontier,” she said.