Oldest Writing in New World Discovered, Scientists Say

September 14, 2006

A writing system lost for 3,000 years has been rediscovered on an ancient stone tablet in Mexico, archaeologists say (map of Mexico).

The tablet is the earliest example of writing in the New World, pushing back the origins of writing in the region by several hundred years, according to a paper that will appear in tomorrow's edition of the journal Science.

Most likely, the Olmec people, who once lived along the Gulf of Mexico, created the tablet, the researchers say.

The Olmecs, famed for their colossal statues of heads, are generally regarded as the first true civilization in the Americas.

Until now no one had ever found concrete evidence of Olmec writing.

"The rediscovery of ancient writing systems is one of the rarest events in archaeology," said Stephen Houston, an archaeologist at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, who helped interpret the tablet's markings. "It's a very momentous find."

But many archaeologists are adopting a wait-and-see attitude, reserving judgment on the tablet's importance.

They hope that more examples of the writing system will show up in future excavations. Until then, the skeptics question how old the artifact is, whether the tablet actually shows writing—and whether the find is a fake.

Lost in Translation

The rectangular tablet, found at a site known as Cascajal, looks like it came straight from the cartoon the Flintstones.

About the size of a legal sheet of paper, the tablet is 5 inches (13 centimeters) thick and weighs a hefty 25 pounds (12 kilograms).

The tablet bears a total of 62 symbols arranged in horizontal rows—unusual for Mesoamerican scripts, which typically use vertical rows.

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