For 7 centuries, the Maya recorded their history in elaborate stone carvings. Archaeologists have deciphered these hieroglyphs, but haven't been certain about their origins. Now a team describes what is potentially the oldest evidence of writing in the Americas. For many archaeologists, the two artifacts suggest that Maya script originated in an earlier culture known as the Olmec.
Several clues have long suggested that the Olmec civilization, which flourished from 1200 B.C. to 400 B.C., was the first to develop cultural traditions, including writing, later adopted by the Maya, who reigned from about A.D. 300 to 900. Large-scale Olmec architecture and monumental sculpture suggest that these people were the first in Mesoamerica to concentrate broad political power in the hands of a few, conditions associated with later writing across Mesoamerica. Languages from other Mesoamerican regions have apparently borrowed words related to writing from the precursor to the language now spoken in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, the Olmec heartland. But hard evidence of Olmec scribes is scant.
Mary Pohl of Florida State University, Tallahassee, and her co-authors found intriguing signs of writing at a site near a major Olmec city in what is now southern Mexico. Layers of refuse contained a fist-sized cylinder seal used for printing and engraved chips of greenstone not much smaller than a thumbnail. Radiocarbon dating of nearby refuse allowed the researchers to come up with an approximate date, 650 B.C., for the engraved objects, the team reports in the 6 December issue of Science.
The artifacts have features that the researchers interpret as symbols indicating words. For example, one of the greenstone fragments bears two inscribed oval glyphs that might be a columnar text. Inscribed on the cylinder is a glyph that resembles a Maya symbol called "3 Ajaw," a date in the Mesoamerican calendar. In Maya writing, ajaw also means "king." Because royalty were traditionally named according to their birthday, Pohl reads the Olmec cylinder seal as the name "King 3 Ajaw."
Some experts question the fragments' age and whether they meet strict definitions of writing. "A few isolated emblems ... fall well below the standard for first writing," says epigrapher Steven Houston of Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. But others are convinced: "This is the oldest writing," says archaeologist Richard Diehl of the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa. "It's the mother and father of all later Mesoamerican writing systems."