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Image: Olmec seal
The photo at left shows a cylinder seal that was discovered at an Olmec site at San Andréas in Mexico. The image at right shows what would be printed when the seal is inked and rolled out. The bird appears to be "speaking" the markings at far right. Among the markings are symbols for kingship and a calendar date, and researchers say they probably represent the name of an Olmec king.
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Science

The roots of writing in the New World have been traced back to a time earlier than researchers thought — as far back as 2,650 years, when the ancient Olmec civilization flourished on Mexico’s Gulf Coast, according to a study in the journal Science, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

With their complex urban centers, their huge clay and earth pyramids, and their focus on royal rituals, the Olmec have long been recognized for laying the foundations of the later Maya and Aztec cultures. Now, researchers have added the development of writing in the New World to the list of Olmec “firsts.”

Until now, the earliest evidence of writing in the New World seemed to come from Zapotec settlements in nearby southwestern Mexico. A monument from that area bearing two glyphs was originally dated at 600 to 500 B.C., but now an origin between 300 B.C. and A.D. 200 seems more likely.

Recently Mary Pohl of Florida State University in Tallahassee and colleagues Kevin Pope of Geo Eco Arc Research and Christopher von Nagy of Tulane University uncovered two glyph-bearing artifacts near La Venta, the Olmec’s major royal center after 850 B.C. The ceramic cylinder and greenstone plaque date to about 650 B.C. Pohl’s team concludes that the graphics covering them are not simply drawings but rather represent spoken language and are therefore true writing.

“The Olmecs crystallized and formalized Central American culture through the institution of kingship, and writing was an integral part of that,” said Pohl. So it makes sense, she said, that the Olmec were the first in the New World to develop a written language, which would be adapted and refined by those who followed.

From objects to concepts
As far as researchers know, writing developed independently at least five times: in present-day Iraq, Egypt, China, Pakistan and Central America. Most experts credit the ancient Middle Easterners with the earliest script, which was pressed into clay tablets by about 3,000 B.C.

The earliest scribes in the Middle East seem to have been interested primarily in accounting. Their missives tallied livestock sold, foodstuffs delivered, taxes paid and the like.

In most cases, true writing evolved from simple iconography, in which drawings depict objects or people. Over time, symbols took on more complex meanings and came to represent words or concepts.

The Olmec have long been recognized as the first significant civilization to develop in Central America.

Their political-religious centers, spreading from huge ceremonial mounds, were the model for later sites like the Maya’s famed Tikal and Chichén Itzá. Later cultures also adopted the Olmec’s system of kingship, which was based in part on military conquest.

The Olmec are also known for their monumental stone artworks, including colossal heads weighing up to 40 tons as well as stelae and statues. Excavated among the remains of a great feast, the artifacts found by Pohl’s group are also works of art.

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Although they are on a considerably smaller scale than some Olmec art, the new artifacts were nevertheless designed for showing off. The ceramic cylinder, about 3 inches (8 centimeters) tall, would have been inked and rolled over skin or clothing to leave a printed image, according to Pohl. The greenstone plaque was probably worn as jewelry.

Messages from the past
To interpret writing in an unknown ancient language, experts like Pohl and her colleagues work backwards from more recent texts, looking for similarities in the shape and use of various glyphs.

The rollout from the ceramic seal depicts a bird with a series of glyphs coming from its beak. Although it is not yet possible to translate the message in its entirety, one of the elements is a U-shaped glyph that in later periods was used to represent rulership. Another resembles a glyph for a specific date in the sacred 260-day calendar that guided daily life of the Maya.

Because it was a Mesoamerican practice to use birth day names as personal names, Pohl concluded, “the message on the cylinder is the name of a king. It was a way of justifying, of propping up power.” Moreover, the early reference to the sacred calendar indicates that this Mayan system also evolved from an Olmec prototype, Pohl said.

In part because the glyphs on the cylinder seem to emanate from the bird’s beak, like text in a modern-day cartoon bubble, the authors contend that they clearly signify spoken words and thus represent true writing. “We’re making the argument that this is not just iconography,” Pohl said.

The glyphs on the greenstone plaque are harder to decipher. Yet both the material and the symbols resemble those found in later artifacts from various regions, providing further evidence that the Olmec’s writing formed the basis for later scripts in several Central American cultures.

Image: Fragments
Greenstone plaque fragments with early glyphs were found at the San Andréas site. The fragments were probably from high-status jewelry of the time, researchers say. The bar at the bottom of the images provides a metric scale -- the largest fragments are about 9 millimeters wide.
Of kings and calendars
In contrast to the economic focus of the earliest Middle Eastern texts, the impetus for Olmec writing appears to have been political: the crowning of kings, associated rituals and the calendar to track them.

“What we’re seeing is how rulers gained power,” said Pohl. “The Olmecs were the first Mesoamericans to have the pyramids, urban centers, and writing. It’s all tied together in terms of the emergence of kings.”

© 2013 American Association for the Advancement of Science

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