Oldest Writing in the New World

Signs carved into a stone slab may represent the earliest known writing in the Americas.

You don’t normally expect anything exciting to happen while building a road. But, several years ago, road builders in southern Mexico found a large stone slab covered with marks. Scientists have now concluded that these signs may be the oldest evidence of writing ever found in the Americas.

Road builders uncovered this stone slab, now known as the Cascajal block, in a gravel quarry in Veracruz, Mexico.

Image courtesy of Stephen Houston

Road workers discovered the stone in 1999 while digging in a gravel pit near Veracruz. This area of Mexico was at the center of the ancient Olmec civilization.

Scientists who have studied the rock, known as the Cascajal block, say that it displays an early form of Olmec writing, dating back nearly 3,000 years.

Signs inscribed on this slab from southern Mexico may represent the earliest writing in the Americas.

Image courtesy of Stephen Houston

Scientists had previously found samples of Olmec writing from 2,650 years ago. The new block is older and clearly shows writing, says Stephen D. Houston of Brown University in Providence, R.I.

One side of the stone block is covered with 62 carved signs. Twenty-eight of these signs are distinctive elements, similar to individual letters, that might represent things like corn, eyes, or animal skin. The signs run across the block, just as words run across a page.

This drawing shows the 62 symbols carved into the Cascajal block.

© Science

Scientists aren’t sure exactly what the symbols mean, and they don’t know whether the writing system had any basic rules or grammar.

This type of writing might have spread across southern Mexico, says Houston. Wooden figurines found at other Olmec sites have a few similar signs carved in the backs of their heads.

Some scientists aren’t sure that the stone bears evidence of writing. The signs on the stone, for example, appear to run horizontally, whereas later writing in the region ran vertically.

Houston, however, suspects that other blocks with writing exist in the area. He and his team plan new excavations near the quarry where the original stone was found.—E. Jaffe

Going Deeper:

Bower, Bruce. 2006. Scripted stone: Ancient block may bear Americas’ oldest writing. Science News 170(Sept. 16):179-180. Available at http://www.sciencenews.org/articles/20060916/fob2.asp .

Peterson, Ivars. 2006. From counting to writing? Muse 9(May/June):40. Available at http://www.sciencenewsforkids.org/pages/puzzlezone/muse/muse0506.asp .

Ramsayer, Kate. 2006. Early Maya writing. Science News for Kids (Jan. 25). Available at http://www.sciencenewsforkids.org/articles/20060125/Note3.asp .

Sohn, Emily. 2005. Stone tablet may solve Maya mystery. Science News for Kids (Oct. 12). Available at http://www.sciencenewsforkids.org/articles/20051012/Note2.asp .


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