The Cascajal Block is a tablet-sized writing slab in Mexico, made of serpentinite, which has been dated to the early first millennium BCE, incised with hitherto unknown characters that may represent the earliest writing system in the New World. Archaeologist Stephen D. Houston of Brown University said that this discovery helps to "link the Olmec civilization to literacy, document an unsuspected writing system, and reveal a new complexity to [the Olmec] civilization."
The Cascajal Block was discovered by road builders in the late 1990s in a pile of debris in the village of Lomas de Tacamichapan in the Veracruz lowlands in the ancient Olmec heartland of coastal southeastern Mexico. The block was found amidst ceramic shards and clay figurines and from these the block is dated to the Olmec archaeological culture's San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán phase, which ended c. 900 BCE, preceding the oldest Zapotec writing dated to about 500 BCE. Archaeologists Carmen Rodriguez and Ponciano Ortiz of the National Institute of Anthropology and History of Mexico examined and registered it with government historical authorities. It weighs about 11.5 kg (25 lb) and measures 36 cm × 21 cm × 13 cm. Details of the find were published by researchers in the 15 September 2006 issue of the journal Science.
Putative Olmec writing system
The block holds a total of 62 glyphs, some of which resemble plants such as maize and pineapple, or animals such as insects and fish. Many of the symbols are more abstract boxes or blobs. The symbols on the Cascajal block are unlike those of any other writing system in Mesoamerica, such as in Mayan languages or Isthmian, another extinct Mesoamerican script. The Cascajal block is also unusual because the symbols apparently run in horizontal rows and "there is no strong evidence of overall organization. The sequences appear to be conceived as independent units of information". All other known Mesoamerican scripts typically use vertical rows.
Assessment by archaeologists and other specialists
Authors of the report
- Stephen D. Houston, who also worked on the study, said the text, if decoded, will decipher "earliest voices of Mesoamerican civilization." "Some of the pictographic signs were frequently repeated, particularly ones that looked like an insect or a lizard." Houston 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." He 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."
- "This is extremely important because we never recognized this writing system, until this discovery," said archaeologist Karl Taube of the University of California, Riverside, who was involved in the documentation and publication of the discovery. "We've known they have very elaborate art, and iconography, but this is the first strong indication that they had visually recorded speech."
- For Richard Diehl of the University of Alabama, the discovery announced in the journal Science amounted to rock-solid proof that the Olmecs had a form of writing. Diehl has believed "all along" that the Olmecs possessed the ability to write and discovery of the stone "corroborates my gut feelings."
- William Saturno, not involved in the study, agreed with Houston that the horizontally arranged inscription shows patterns that are the hallmarks of true writing, including syntax and language-specific word order. "That's full-blown, legitimate text—written symbols taking the place of spoken words," said Saturno, a University of New Hampshire anthropologist and expert in Mesoamerican writing.
- Mary Pohl at Florida State University is an expert on the Olmec. She said "One sign looks actually like a corn cob with silk coming out the top. Other signs are unique, and never before seen, like one of an insect... These objects—and thus probably the writing—had a special value in rituals…We see that the writing is very closely connected with ritual and the early religious beliefs, because they are taking the ritual carvings and putting them into glyphs and making writing out of them. And all of this is occurring in the context of the emergence of early kings and the development of a centralized power and stratified society."
- David Stuart, a University of Texas at Austin expert in Mesoamerican writing, was not connected with the discovery, but reviewed the study for Science. He said "To me, this find really does bring us back to this idea that at least writing and a lot of the things we associate with Mesoamerican culture really did have their origin in this region."
- Lisa LeCount, an associate professor of archaeology at the University of Alabama, theorized that, if it is a crown, it might have been carved into the stone to establish leadership. "The stone could have been used as a tool by an emerging king to validate his exalted position and to legitimize his right to the throne. Only the elite in that society would have known how to read and write." LeCount said there should be no question that the Olmecs represented the "mother culture" and predated the Mayans, whose writings and buildings remain to this day.
- Caterina Magni, an Associate Professor of Prehispanic Archaeology at the Paris-Sorbonne University, presents a new interpretation of the Cascajal Block. Initially, the author interpreted each glyph in an isolated way. In the second time, C. Magni proposes a religious and ritual reading of the text. It's an initiation rite which takes place an underground location that include self-sacrificial practices. "This elaborate code supports and expresses an extremely sophisticated manner of thinking, which refers primarily to religious notions but also, to a lesser extent, to the socio-political domain." In 2014 Caterina Magni argued, in the book Les Olmèques. La genèse de l’écriture en Méso-Amérique. that the Cascajal block is carved with glyphs which belong to the Olmec vocabulary and demonstrates that this ancient people invented the writing. Magni proposes a new approach to the graphic code of the Olmecs and offers a new perspective on their system of thought, as well as proposing a dictionary of Olmec glyphs and symbols.
- David Freidel and F. Kent Reilly III proposed, in 2010, that, rather than a unique script, the Cascajal Block in fact represents a special arrangement of sacred objects used in ancient times for magical purposes. They propose that the incised symbols on the block represent the contents of three sacred bundles arranged in three separate registers from top to bottom. These sacred bundles include well known objects used in magic and divination rituals. Many of these objects/signs, arranged horizontally within the registers, are present in all three registers. The whole block is to be read in boustrophedon fashion from top to bottom and alternatively left to right and right to left. Freidel and Reilly argue that the majority of the symbols on the block are found in the established corpus of Middle Formative art and many are otherwise part of iconographically comprehensible compositions that are designed to be read pictographically and not as script encoding spoken language. Rather than to regard the Cascajal Block as an epistemological dead-end—the conclusion if it is identified as a unique script—they identify the block as a key to understanding a special arrangement of sacred objects presented in the course of a religious ritual. The purpose of this may have been to memorialize the acts of divination or other magical rituals. This was a pervasive ritual practice well attested in the archaeology of Formative period Mesoamerica.
Some archaeologists are skeptical of the tablet:
- For David Grove, an archaeologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville who was not involved in the research, the tablet "looked like a fake to me because the symbols are laid out in horizontal rows," unlike the region's other writing systems, he said.
- Archaeologist Christopher Pool of the University of Kentucky in Lexington said in 2010 "I've always been a little skeptical of it. "For one, it's unique," he continued. Another critical issue, Pool adds, is that when Rodriguez and Ortiz retrieved the tablet, it was already removed from the ground, taking it out of its original archaeological context."
- Max Schvoerer, professor at Michel de Montaigne University, and founder of the Laboratoire de Physique appliquée à l'Archéologie, said "Unfortunately, the authors determined the age of the block only indirectly, by studying ceramics shards found at the site, in the absence of a well identified and dated level of occupation."
The most comprehensive criticism was published in the journal Science, the publisher of the original study, on 9 March 2007. In a letter, archaeologists Karen Bruhns and Nancy Kelker raise five points of concern:
- The block was found in a pile of bulldozer debris and cannot be reliably dated.
- The block is unique. There is no other known example of Olmec drawing, much less writing, on a serpentine slab.
- All other Mesoamerican writing systems are written either vertically or linearly. The glyphs on the block are arranged in neither format but instead "randomly bunch".
- As pointed out by the original authors, some of the glyphs do appear on other Olmec artifacts, but have never been heretofore identified as writing, only as decorative motifs.
- "What we can only describe as the 'cootie' glyph (#1/23/50) fits no known category of Mesoamerican glyph and, together with the context of the discovery, strongly suggests a practical joke".
A rebuttal to the criticism by the authors of the original study was published directly following the letter:
- Other critical language finds, as well as the Rosetta Stone, were also found without provenance.
- Such inscriptions are faint and may as yet be unseen on previously discovered slabs.
- The signs are in a "purposeful" pattern.
- "All known hieroglyphic systems in the world relate to pre-existing iconography or codified symbolism", and therefore it is not surprising that the Cascajal glyphs appear in other contexts as motifs.
- The 'cootie' glyph can be found in "three-dimensional" form on San Lorenzo Monument 43.
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Ancient civilisations in Mexico developed a writing system as early as 900 BC, new evidence suggests.
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A block with a hitherto unknown system of writing has been found in the Olmec heartland of Veracruz, Mexico. Stylistic and other dating of the block places it in the early first millennium before the common era, the oldest writing in the New World, with features that firmly assign this pivotal development to the Olmec civilization of Mesoamerica.
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- Quote taken from Rodríguez Martínez et al. (2006).
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