Archaeologist Stephen D. Houston of Brown University published a paper in 2006 arguing that a Maya tablet found in Veracruz, Mexico is ”an unambiguous example of writing,” a conclusion that since has been generally embraced.

By Wayne Curtis

This is an article excerpt from the Fall 2020 edition of American Archaeology Magazine. Become a member of The Archaeological Conservancy for your complimentary subscription. 

In the early 1990s some road builders in a village in the lowlands of Veracruz, Mexico, found a tablet made of serpentine amid quarry debris. It was the size of a legal pad and the thickness of two reams of paper, and had been faintly incised with sixty-two glyphs. Called the Cascajal block, it has remained a puzzle. Is it a series of disconnected pictures? Or an early writing system with an inscrutable vocabulary and syntax?

The age of the Cascajal Block is uncertain, but it might date to 900 B.C., which would make it the oldest example of Mesoamerican writing. | Credit: Michael D. Coe
A lord bearing a standard is associated with a short glyphic caption in this example of the Olmec writing system found at La Venta in southeast Mexico. | Credit: Marc Zender
The Aztec emperor Tizoc, (left) is one of the figures inscribed in this sacrificial altar known as the Tizoc Stone, which was discovered in Mexico City. This example of Aztec writing dates to roughly A.D. 1485. | Credit: Marc Zender
In this Maya inscription found at Copan in western Honduras, the city's founding king, K'inich Yax K'uk' Mo' (second from left), interacts with his descendant, the sixteenth king of Copan, Yax Pasaj Chan Yopaat (second from right). K'inich Yax K'uk' Mo' ruled from about A.D. 426-437, and Yax Pasaj Chan Yopaat from roughly 763-810. This inscription has the dedicatory date of February 28th, A.D. 776. | Credit: Marc Zender

In 2006 archaeologist Stephen D. Houston of Brown University published a paper arguing that it indeed was ”an unambiguous example of writing,” a conclusion that since has been generally embraced. The glyphs were arrayed in horizontal rows; scholars suspected it could be an encoding of the early Mixe-Zoquean language, which was thought to be spoken by the Olmec people who occupied this region. Based on the ages of pottery and other artifacts found near the tablet, the Cascajal block was dated to around 900 B.C. If accurate, it is the earliest known example of Mesoamerican writing. And its antiquity presented the possibility that it may be a close descendant of a proto-script from which all Mesoamerican writing likely descended.

The Maya script, the best-known Mesoamerican writing system, consists of beguiling glyphs that are at once blocky and fluid, that were painted in codices and carved into stone monuments. The script survived and evolved for two millennia, from approximately 400 B.C. to A.D. 1600; some 7,000 documented texts exist. While the volume and beauty of the Maya script tends to cast a long shadow, it’s far from the only form of writing to emerge from the complex cultures of Mesoamerica.

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