The oldest writing found in the West

I love unsolved ancient texts. So I was delighted read that archaelogists have discovered a 3,000-year-old piece of chiselled rock that contains the oldest writing found in the Western Hemisphere. Nobody can yet figure out what it says, but it looks like it was generated by the Olmec, a pre-Mayan society in the Gulf of Mexico mostly known for carving gorgeous and weird stone heads. (No-one is quite sure what the heads represent, but since the Olmec were known for playing a game that used a rubber ball — Olmec literally means “rubber people” — it’s hypothesized that the statues might be renditions of famous rubber-ball athletes.)

As the New York Times reports:

The tiny, delicate signs are incised on a block of soft serpentine stone 14 inches long, 8 inches wide and 5 inches thick. The inscription is on the stone’s concave top surface.

Dr. Houston, who was a leader in the decipherment of Maya writing, examined the stone with an eye to clues that this was true writing and not just iconography unrelated to a language. He said in an interview that he had detected regular patterns and order suggesting “a text segmented into what almost look like sentences, with clear beginnings and clear endings.”

Some pictographic signs were frequently repeated, Dr. Houston said, particularly ones that looked like an insect or a lizard. He suspected that these were signs alerting the reader to the use of words that sound alike but have different meanings — as in the difference in English of “I” and “eye.”

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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