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Mysterious stone slab bears ancient writing

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« on: February 23, 2008, 02:09:54 pm »

Mysterious stone slab bears ancient writing
POSTED: 1:52 p.m. EDT, September 15, 2006

WASHINGTON (AP) -- An ancient slab of green stone inscribed with insects, ears of corn, fish and other symbols is indecipherable so far, but one message is clear: It is the earliest known writing in the Western Hemisphere.

The ancient Olmec civilization probably produced the faintly etched symbols around 900 B.C., or roughly three centuries before what previously had been proposed as the earliest examples of writing in the Americas.

"We are dealing with the first, clear evidence of writing in the New World," said Stephen Houston, a Brown University anthropologist. Houston and his U.S. and Mexican colleagues detail the tablet's discovery and analysis in a study appearing this week in the journal Science.

The pattern of symbols covering the face of the rectangular block also represents a previously unknown ancient writing system.

The text contains 28 distinct glyphs or symbols, some of which are repeated three and four times. The writing system does not appear to be linked to any known later scripts and may represent a dead end, according to the study.

Other experts not involved in the study agreed with Houston and his colleagues that the horizontally arranged inscription shows patterns that are the hallmarks of true writing, including syntax and language-specific word order.

"That's full-blown, legitimate text -- written symbols taking the place of spoken words," said William Saturno, a University of New Hampshire anthropologist and expert in Mesoamerican writing.

The text is roughly arranged in rows across the block's face, which is almost exactly the dimensions of a standard legal pad. At 5 inches thick and 26 pounds, the tablet is far more hefty, but still portable.

The face is smooth and slightly concave, which suggests it may have been worn down in antiquity as it was inscribed and erased multiple times, Houston said.

There is little hope of deciphering the meaning of the text. The small size of the block and the faintness of the inscription imply the text was not a public document, but instead was meant for intimate reading, Houston said. Some suggested it may have had a ritual use.

Villagers in the Mexican state of Veracruz discovered the tablet sometime before 1999, while quarrying an ancient Olmec mound for road-building material. News of the discovery slowly trickled out, and the study's authors traveled to the site this year to examine and photograph the block.

Based on other materials, including pottery shards, believed found with the slab, team concluded it is roughly 2,900 years old. Isolated signs similar to those inscribed on the block also appear on even older figurines found elsewhere in Mexico.

In 2002, other experts claimed an Olmec cylindrical seal and chips from a stone plaque contained the oldest examples of writing in the Americas. Some have disputed their interpretation of those symbols, which date to roughly 650 B.C.

"This is centuries before anything we've had. People have debated whether the Olmecs had any writing. This clears it up. This nails it for me," David Stuart, a University of Texas at Austin expert in Mesoamerican writing, said of the new find. Stuart was not connected with the discovery, but reviewed the study for Science.

The find bolsters the early importance of the Olmecs, who flourished between about 1200 B.C. and 400 B.C., before other great Central American civilizations such as the Maya and Aztec. They are best known for the massive heads they carved from stone. The village where the block was found is close to a site called San Lorenzo, believed to be the center of the Olmec world.

"To me, this find really does bring us back to this idea that at least writing and a lot of the things we associate with Mesoamerican culture really did have their origin in this region," Stuart said.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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« Reply #1 on: February 23, 2008, 02:14:01 pm »

America's earliest writing a mystery thriller

The Cascajal block, left, and a drawing of its patterned images.
Photo: AP

Mike Toner, Atlanta
September 16, 2006

A SMALL stone slab unearthed in a pile of debris in Mexico bears what appears to be the oldest example of writing in the Americas.

The 2900-year-old inscriptions, attributed to Mexico's ancient Olmec civilisation, push the advent of writing in the New World back at least 400 years.

Without a New World Rosetta stone — the key that helped interpret Egyptian hieroglyphs — the symbols on what researchers are calling "the Cascajal block" have not yet been deciphered. But a team of Mexican and American researchers say the repetition of some symbols suggests it might be an early form of poetry.

"This is a tantalising discovery that shows a whole new dimension of Olmec society," says a Brown University archaeologist, Stephen Houston. "More records probably exist and remain to be found.

"If we can decode the content, these earliest voices of Mesoamerican civilisation will speak to us today." The world's first writing is thought to have emerged in Mesopotamia and Egypt about 5000 years ago.

Until now, however, the earliest known example of writing in the Americas were Olmec symbols carved on a ceramic cylinder, and engraved plaques — dating to between 350BC and 650BC — and found in the late 1990s on Mexico's Gulf Coast.

A University of Alabama anthropologist, Richard Diehl, an expert on Olmec culture, says the latest discovery, reported in the current issue of the journal Science, pushes the emergence of writing back to about 900BC. The stone tablet, a slab of greenish serpentine 12 centimetres thick, 23 centimetres wide and 40 centimetres long, contains 62 distinct symbols that Professor Diehl and other members of the team say "conforms to all expectation of writing".

The slab was discovered in 1990 by road builders quarrying for construction near the village of Lomas de Tacamichapa, in an area that was once the heartland of the Olmec civilisation.

Later American cultures, such as the Mayan, had well-developed systems of writing, record keeping and calendars, but less is known about the Olmecs, who built cities and pyramids along the Gulf of Mexico nearly 2000 years before the Mayans.

The Olmecs are best known for the colossal carved stone heads they left behind. But anthropologists believe they were also the first Central American civilisation to practise intensive agriculture, and the first to develop a distinct political hierarchy.

Professor Houston and other researchers say the Olmec writing system may have grown out of a need for reliable accounting and record keeping.

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Neart inár lámha, fírinne ar ár dteanga, glaine inár gcroí
"Strength in our arms, truth on our tongue, clarity in our heart"
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