Science: First Letters in New World Found in Mexico

Society | December 13, 2002, Friday // 00:00

Archaeologists have applauded recent excavations at an ancient settlement in south-eastern Mexico that have yielded an array of artefacts from the Olmec civilization. The researchers now say that a few of these artefacts display remnants of the first written language in the New World, dating to around 650 B.C. A cylindrical ceramic seal and four pieces of a jade plaque were unearthed at the San Andres site in 1997 and 1998. Symbols carved on those finds belong to a writing system based on the spoken Olmec tongue, contend Mary E.D. Pohl of Florida State University in Tallahassee and her colleagues. Olmec writing provided a foundation for scripts developed by other regional civilizations, including the Maya, beginning at least 250 years later, Pohl's team proposes. "These artefacts, which predate others containing writing, reveal that key aspects of [ancient New World] scripts were present in Olmec writing," the scientists conclude. Pohl's group discovered the seal and plaque shards in a deposit of refuse from festival and feasting activities at the Olmec site. Inscriptions on the seal and plaque display important elements of later scripts employed by civilizations in Mexico and Central America, the researchers say. These include a mix of language-related symbols and drawings, as well as references to a sacred calendar and specific kings. Pohl suspects that the cylindrical seal was used to imprint clothing with the King 3 Ajaw symbol.

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