RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Debris from a quarry in Mexico has yielded a stone block inscribed with what appears to be the oldest writing ever found in the Americas.
Numerous symbols are carved across the block in rows. Experts say the block dates back almost 3,000 years and was created by people from the Olmec civilization. They were an early Central American people who rose to prominence before the heyday of the Maya.
Here's NPR's Christopher Joyce.
CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: In archeology, people dream about this kind of thing. Here's what happened.
Workers in the state of Veracruz in southern Mexico were quarrying rock. They piled some debris by the side of the road. Someone spotted a greenish block of stone with inscriptions on it. Local authorities kept it for several years until archeologists figured out that the inscriptions might just be writing, very ancient writing.
Mr. STEPHEN HOUSTON (Archeologist, Brown University): When I saw the block, as did the rest of us, we knew we were in the presence of something very special.
JOYCE: Stephen Houston is an archeologist at Brown University.
Mr. HOUSTON: It had completely unknown signs, but they were arranged in these long sequences we felt just had to be a new form of writing. Writings of this sort from the ancient world come up so rarely.
JOYCE: It was a once in a lifetime discovery, Houston says. The inscriptions are hieroglyphics: sixty-two small drawings in rows. But Houston says this wasn't art.
Mr. HOUSTON: It's not just a set of symbols that might be placed together the way you might see on, let's say, a medieval French or English painting. Rather, they're arranged in the sequence that is meant to reflect a language with grammatical elements and with word order that makes sense.
JOYCE: There are 28 different glyphs, as archeologists call them for short. Some look like vegetables. One looks like a sharp awl or a pick. Some symbols are repeated, such as one that looks like an insect. Houston suspects that one might be some sort of punctuation. Some sequences of symbols are separated from the rest in what look like poetic couplets.
Not all of these symbols are unfamiliar to archeologists. Mary Pohl at Florida State University is an expert on the Olmec. She's analyzed Olmec symbols on jewelry and a cylindrical seal that dates almost as far back as the inscribed tablet.
She says a few of the symbols are clearly written versions of carved stone objects - like an ear of corn - previously found at Olmec archeological sites.
Ms. MARY POHL (Archeologist, Florida State University): One sign looks actually like a corncob. Others are rather unique. This insect-like sign is something I haven't seen before.
JOYCE: Pohl says these objects, and thus probably the writing, had special value in rituals.
Ms. POHL: We see that the writing is very closely connected with rituals 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, the development of centralized power and stratified society.
JOYCE: The tablet and inscriptions are described in the journal Science. Its date is based on other artifacts found nearby and may need further confirmation.
Houston and scientists from Mexico who first identified the text say they have no idea what it actually says. With no previous text to work from, deciphering it will be very difficult.
But you're going to try?
Mr. HOUSTON: We'll do our best!
(Soundbite of laughter)
JOYCE: Should I call you back in a few weeks?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. HOUSTON: I think it's going to take longer than that.
JOYCE: What are needed are more texts for comparison. Archeologists say there are lots of Olmec sites in Mexico that are still unexplored, and any one could hold the key to reading the oldest known language in the Americas.
Christopher Joyce, NPR News.
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