carvings said to be in oldest script ever discovered in Western Hemisphere

drawing of the writing discussed in this blog entryThe latest issue of Science features an article on a stone slab found in Veracruz, Mexico. Scholars have identified the inscriptions on the stone — tentatively dated to at least 900 B.C.E. — as the earliest writing yet found in the Americas.

Dr. Houston, who was a leader in deciphering Maya writing, examined the stone looking for clues that the symbols were true writing and not just iconography unrelated to a language. He said in an interview that he detected regular patterns and order, suggesting “a text segmented into what almost look like sentences, with clear beginnings and clear endings.”

Some of the pictographic signs were frequently repeated, Dr. Houston said, particularly ones that looked like an insect or a lizard. He suspected that these might be signs alerting the reader to the use of words that sound alike but have different meanings – as in the difference between “I” and “eye” in English.

All in all, Dr. Houston concluded, “the linear sequencing, the regularity of signs, the clear patterns of ordering, they tell me this is writing. But we don’t know what it says.”

The New York Times‘ use of the word “pictographic” prompts me to dig out DeFrancis’s important observation:

With regard to the principle, it matters little whether the symbol is an elaborately detailed picture, a slightly stylized drawing, or a drastically abbreviated symbol of essentially abstract form. What is crucial is to recognize that the diverse forms perform the same function in representing sound. To see that writing has the form of pictures and to conclude that it is pictographic is correct in only one sense — that of the form, but not the function, of the symbols. We can put it this way:

QUESTION: When is a pictograph not a pictograph?
ANSWER: When it represents a sound.

It looks like those working on the inscription know what they’re doing. But thinking of writing in terms of pictographs or ideographs certainly hindered earlier scholars of the ancient Americas. For a brief essay on this see “The Ideographic Myth as a Barrier to Deciphering Maya Writing,” by Michael D. Coe. This is found in Difficult Characters: Interdisciplinary Studies of Chinese and Japanese Writing, by Mary S. Erbaugh. Or see some of the other many works by Coe.


One thought on “carvings said to be in oldest script ever discovered in Western Hemisphere

  1. To whom it may concern:
    The Olmec Old writing is partially read descriptively these certain Olmec symbols reads; (19-35) Sealed tomb chamber, (20) triangle entrance above to triangle tomb entrance, (21) sealed tomb sarcophaguses, (22) inside two. (12-60)symbols read; two inside triangle entrance. the rest of the hieroglyphs are mainly thus plants, insects and tool like belongings symbols that are indigenous to the area, language of the author of the ancient stone. Most likely the inscriptions are from a culture that migrated through out the America’s.
    (Partial Translattion)

    The symbols I mentioned are are like apples and oranges compare to the rest of the symbols listed? That are bugs, plant life ect.. Like the Egyptian hieroglyphs they were compared to regional surroundings, language. The language scholars are searching for in relation to the Olmec is no longer. Focus on these symbols I pointed out that describe some physical structure and it will bring this decipherment closer to being solved.

    Independent Oak Island Treasure Hunter
    Canadian Cree First Nations Researcher

    Keith Ranville

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