All  
The Cascajal Block

Does the Cascajal Block provide evidence of a written language of the Olmecs?

Print

The Cascajal Block is a stone tablet with the oldest known writing found in the Western Hemisphere.  The inscription on the stone has been dated to 900 BC or 400 years before writing had been known to exist in Mesoamerica, and by extension in the Americas.  It is thought to have belonged to the Olmec Civilization, which was an ancient Pre-Columbian people who lived in the tropical lowlands of south-central Mexico, and may provide the first solid evidence that the Olmecs had a true written language.

Famous stone head of the Olmec civilization.

Famous stone head of the Olmec civilization. Source: BigStockPhoto

The Olmecs were the first complex society in Mesoamerica (being the region from central Mexico through much of Central America) and flourished on the south coast of the Gulf of Mexico from as early as 1200 BC to about 400 BC in what are now the states of Veracruz and Tabasco in Mexico.  Although the exact date of their arrival is unknown, it is believed the Olmecs arrived with a mass migration in 13,000 BC from the land bridge that once connected Siberia to Alaska.  They developed what may have been the earliest civilization in North America and are believed to have influenced the artwork and religious practices of later American cultures such as the Mayan and Aztecs.  They are best known for their colossal carved stone sculptures which include huge human heads, and figures with both animal and human-like features.  Some of these sculptures weigh as much as 36,000 pounds (16,300 kilograms) and similar type heads have been found as far away as central Mexico in the states of Oaxaca, Morelos and Guerrero.  Some scholars believe the Olmecs may have come from Africa due to the physical characteristics found on their monuments.

Man Seated on Throne, Oxtotitlan, Olmec Culture, Middle Formative Period, BC, cave painting.

Man Seated on Throne, Oxtotitlan, Olmec Culture, Middle Formative Period, BC, cave painting. ( studyblue.com)

The Cascajal Block was first discovered at a gravel quarry in 1999 in the village of Lomas de Tacamichapa, in Veracruz Mexico, in what was believed to be once the ancient Olmec heartland.  The block was found among ceramic shards and clay figurines and not exhumed by reliable scientific excavation properly.  From the association with these other objects, the block has been dated to the Olmec archaeological culture's San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan phase, which ended in c. 900 BC.  This pre-dates the previously oldest known text in the Americas used by a people known as the Zapotec (who also lived in what is now Mexico) and dates to about 500 BC. 

In September of 2006, a study of the findings was reported in Science magazine.  The block itself is made of serpentine, a semi-hard metamorphic stone and weighs about 26 pounds and is relatively small in size measuring 14 x 8 x 5 inches.  It is blank except for one side, which has been ground smooth and inscribed with 62 symbols of a hieroglyphic script.  The symbols are arranged in rows, which are repeated, similar to other written languages.  The tablet shows other signs of writing including syntax patterns, word order, and repetition.  The signs appear to be representational of insects, plants, animals, pineapple, an ear of corn and various objects.  Many of the symbols appear as abstract boxes or blobs.  Another interesting observation reveals that the block may have been cleared or erased several times.

A selection of signs from the Cascajal Block.

A selection of signs from the Cascajal Block. ( theposthole.org)

While most are in agreement that the images on the Cascajal block are evidence of a writing system, there is still some controversy and criticism surrounding the findings and whether or not the discovery is genuine.  The criticism includes the fact the block was found in a pile of bulldozer debris (not by archeologists) and was dated to around 900 BC, which is an estimate based on the pot shards and other artifacts it was surrounded with.  Some do not trust the context of how the artifact was found.  However, geologists have found weathering inside the inscriptions, showing them to be ancient and laboratory analyses were performed by geologists Ricardo Sanchez and Jacinto Robles in the 2006 for authentication. 

The Cascajal block is also unusual due to the fact that the symbols seem to run in horizontal rows and there is no strong evidence of overall organization.  All other Mesoamerican writing system are written either vertically or linearly while the glyphs on this block are randomly bunched together.  The images do not seem to connect to any other writing of the area or time period.  Thus, two questions remain.  Why have no other examples of this writing style been found and why is there no connection between these early writing attempts and the later writing styles of Central America? In this respect it could be that the Cascajal block is an isolated example of writing or perhaps a widespread language that disappeared by ca 500 BC.  It is believed that the Olmec language was related to the Mixe and Zoque languages which today is spoken by some 150,000 people.

The Olmecs inhabited the south coast of the Gulf of Mexico.

The Olmecs inhabited the south coast of the Gulf of Mexico. ( lessonsite.com)

Since no written documents have been found to date about the Olmecs, little information is known about their society, how they governed or why they disappeared.  Isolated symbols have been uncovered on a few Olmec artifacts, but the Cascajal Block, if authentic, is the first solid evidence of a true written language.  It may not be what the Rosetta Stone was to ancient Egypt, providing a full alphabet, but if the dating is correct, this suggests that the Olmec had a representational writing system in place by the Middle Formative period of Mesoamerican pre-history.  It shows the Olmecs were literate, adding weight to a controversial theory that they built what scholars call a “mother culture,” which laid the groundwork for the Mayans, Aztecs, and the other great civilizations that followed.  The script is the first new writing system to be discovered in decades and raises the possibility that more Olmec texts could be found and deciphered, which would allow archeologists to read the records of what is sometimes called the Americas’ first civilization.

Featured Image: The Cascajal Block. ( urbonu.com)

By Bryan Hilliard

References

Hirst, Kris. "The Cascajal Block - Early Evidence of Olmec Writing the Cascajal Block." The Olmec Cascajal Block. Accessed May 18, 2015. http://archaeology.about.com/od/olmeccivilization/a/cascajal_block.htm.

"What We Learn: The Cascajal Block - Archaeology Magazine Archive." What We Learn: The Cascajal Block - Archaeology Magazine Archive. 2007. Accessed May 18, 2015. http://archive.archaeology.org/0701/etc/learn.html.

Hecht, Jeff. "Oldest Writing in the New World Discovered." New Scientist. September 1, 2005. Accessed May 18, 2015. http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn10076-oldest-writing-in-the-new-world-discovered.html.

"The Cascajal Block, the Earliest Pre-Columbian or Mesoamerican Writing Yet Discovered (Circa 950 BCE 600 BCE).”: HistoryofInformation.com. Accessed May 18, 2015. http://www.historyofinformation.com/expanded.php?id=3900.

Wilford, John. "Writing on Stone May Be Oldest in the Americas." The New York Times. September 13, 2006. Accessed May 18, 2015. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/09/14/science/14cnd-olmec.html?pagewanted=print.

"Real Archaeology." Real Archaeology. November 2, 2014. Accessed May 18, 2015. https://pages.vassar.edu/realarchaeology/2014/11/02/the-cascajal-block-of-the-olmec-civilization/.

Everson, Michael. "Analysis of Olmec Hieroglyphs." Analysis of Olmec Hieroglyphs. September 18, 2006. Accessed May 18, 2015. http://www.evertype.com/gram/olmec.html.

Magni, Caterina. "Olmec Writing the Cascajal Block New Perspectives." 2012. Accessed May 18, 2015. http://research.famsi.org/aztlan/uploads/papers/OlmecCascajalBlockNewPerspectives.pdf.

"Old Script Rewrites New World History." GarethCook. 2006. Accessed May 18, 2015. http://garethcook.net/old-script-rewrites-new-world-history/.

Comments

How convenient that this unknown written language corresponds directly with modern alphabets!

I like this theory, where it is viewed as a trade ledger.
http://busyducks.com/wp_4_1/2015/03/09/interpreting-the-cascajal-block/

Wow, there is so much outdated information in this article. Of particular concern is the declaration that the Olmec maybe the oldest civilization in the Americas. That used to be the case until places like Caral were discovered in Peru, which dates back to 4000 BC. Andean Civilization is older.

Next article