Archaeology buffs take note--the Boston Globe is reporting that scientists have discovered a slab of rock that indicates the existence of a writing culture in the Americas long before the Mayans, Aztecs, or Incas ever graced the terrain.
The Olmecs were a pre-Columbian people living in what is now southern Mexico from about 1200 BC to 400 BC. Until now, their main claim to fame has been their propensity to create gigantic stone heads like the one at left, which they kindly left around for modern archaeologists to discover some 3,000 years later.
But it appears we may have underestimated the Olmecs. During the late 1990s, locals discovered the Cascajal block, a 25-pound slab of serpentine rock that contains 62 carved symbols depicting things like maize, fish, animal skins, and so forth. Not only that, but the symbols appear to be arranged in groups, which would suggest that they're not just pictures--they're writing! Scientists have just finished dating the rock, and it appears to be from around 900 BC. Their colleagues seem to be slowly but surely becoming convinced of the stone's authenticity:
Because the stone was not found by archaeologists, the team took care to ensure it was not a fake. Geologists found weathering inside the inscriptions, showing them to be ancient, not new carvings on an old stone, according to the Science paper.
Grove said that when he first saw an image of the symbols, he suspected the stone was a fake. The text runs horizontally, instead of in the vertical rows used in later Mesoamerican writing, such as Mayan. But after seeing the weathering evidence presented in the report, Grove said that he was ready to concede the writing was authentic, but that he still found it "puzzling."
The writing system seems not to have survived the Olmecs, since as Grove points out, later Mesoamerican systems ran vertically rather than horizontally. But it does seem like it's time we gave the Olmecs their due.
Why do we at HUP care about all this? Well, we've just started distributing the Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection's publication series, and one of their specialties is pre-Columbian studies. What's more, the one book we did with them in 2004 happens to be a catalog of art created by...the Olmecs! It's called Olmec Art at Dumbarton Oaks, and that giant head you see above is from the book's cover. If you want to know more about the Olmecs in general, consult The Olmec and their Neighbors (Olmec culture coincided with the Mayans, their neighbors to the east, for a few hundred years), also published by Dumbarton Oaks and distributed by Harvard University Press.