Friday, September 15, 2006

Earliest Olmec writing discovered

While traveling in Veracruz in 2004 and this summer, Kathy and I learned a lot about the Olmecs, the ancient society which is essentially the mother culture for all of native Latin America - Olmec society originated in the jungles of what's today southern Veracruz state, and the giant heads they left behind have become iconic of their ancient, still-little-known influence.

The Olmec's art featured wonderful stylized scupltures - both tiny ones that often included fun, happy facial expressions, and also the dour giant heads for which they are most famous. (Some of the stone heads are supposedly from 1200 B.C. or even earlier.) The Olmecs have become Kathy's favorite artistic period during our various forays into learning about pre-Colombian art.

Now, apparently, Olmec writing has been discovered on a stone block found near the San Lorenzo site. Apparently much of the writing, perhaps unsurprisingly, was about corn. If authentic, the find would mean the Olmecs had a written language possibly as early as 900 B.C., hundreds of years earlier than previously thought: in other words, a written language had developed in Mexico about 3,000 years ago. Reported the Boston Globe (Sept. 15):
The inscriptions are carved in a rock called serpentine. The block is about 14 inches long, 8 inches wide, and 5 inches deep. The side with the writing is concave, leading the authors of the study to speculate that the block may have been written on, then sanded blank, many times.

The writing system appears to have died, because there are no signs of direct influence on other known writing systems. The oldest previously known text in the Americas dates to about 500 BC, and was used by a people known as the Zapotec, who also lived in what is now Mexico.

The Olmec arose on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico around 1200 BC, in what is now central Mexico, and they faded from history about 400 BC. The farming of maize played a vital role in building their civilization, and the scientists said that three of the 28 different symbols used on the stone appear to depict maize.

The Maya civilization overlapped chronologically with the Olmec and lived to their east, centered on the Yucatan peninsula. Mayan civilization began about 500 BC and went into decline in the eighth and ninth centuries AD. The Aztec lived in central Mexico like the Olmec, but far later, roughly from the 14th to 16th century AD.

Olmec is an Aztec word meaning "people from the rubber area." Rubber plants are common where the Olmec lived.

The two best museums to learn about the Olmecs in Mexico are in the Museum of Anthropology in Xalapa, the state capital of Veracruz, and also at the National Archaeological Museum in Mexico City which, on the Olmecs, has a good collection but perhaps less thorough than in Xalapa (the Mexico City museum focuses on several different pre-Colombian cultures, while the museum in Xalapa, one of my favorite Mexican cities, focuses on cultures in that region). I understand from our friend Judith that there's another excellent museum featuring the Olmecs in Villahermosa in Tabasco, but I have never been there.

We enjoyed studying about the Olmecs on our two vacations in Veracruz, and learned enough to know that this is a neat, important archaeological find.

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