December 5, 2002
Roots traced back to glyphs of Mexico’s Olmec civilization
                            By Laura Kennedy

                           The photo 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.
                           WASHINGTON, Dec. 5 —  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

                                  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
                                  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.
                                  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
                                  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.

                            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.”
                                  © 2002 by the American Association for the
                           Advancement of Science