Science 9 March 2007:Vol. 315. no. 5817, pp. 1365 - 1366 Letters
Did the Olmec Know How to Write?
In their Research Article "Earliest writing in America" (15 Sept. 2006, p. 1610), Ma. del Carmen Rodríguez Martínez et al. suggest that the inscribed "Cascajal block" is the first discovery of Olmec writing. Although we agree with the authors that it is possible that the Olmec did write, we have strong reservations concerning this artifact and its incised motifs.
1) Being found by persons unknown in a pile of bulldozer debris does not constitute reliable provenance.
2) The block does not fit any known category of Mesoamerican inscribed artifact; it is not a stela, celt, sculpture, or jewel. The heartland Olmec did not build in stone; therefore, it cannot be an architectural inscription. Indeed, there are many hundreds of similar serpentine blocks known at La Venta that were used as basal ornament on earthen platforms and in the buried pavements, but not a single one of these has engraving or relief carving. The authors' musings about the block being used for practice and repeatedly erased (resulting in a concave surface) are farfetched.
3) Known Mesoamerican writing systems are written either vertically or linearly (or a combination of the two, as in Maya glyph blocks); they do not randomly "bunch" glyphs as on the Cascajal block [c.f. (1)].
4) Many of the so-called glyphs replicate decorative motifs found on a wide range of largely unprovenanced (i.e., their authenticity is not proven, nor can it be proved) small-scale artifacts. None of these motifs in their original context has been identified as a form of writing. For example, "glyph" # 2/24/38/52 is found as part of the headdress assemblage on a number of the celts (nos. 116, 117, 118, 119) reproduced in Olmec Art of Ancient Mexico (2); "glyph" # 28/58 is found on another celt (no. 114), and "glyph" # 4 is inscribed on a stone figure (no. 47) again in the same catalog.
5) What we can only describe as the "cootie" glyph (# 1/23/50) fits no known category of Mesoamerican glyph and, together with the context of the discovery, strongly suggests a practical joke.
Karen O. Bruhns San Francisco State University ; Nancy L. Kelker Middle Tennessee State University
We thank Bruhns and Kelker for articulating several issues that others have raised concerning the Cascajal block and for providing us the opportunity to lay them to rest.
1) The provenance of the block is what it is, reported by nonarchaeologists but still fixed to an area of a few square meters within a known archaeological site in Veracruz, Mexico. Many other bona fide examples of ancient writing have even less secure find spots, including every known example of Mesoamerica's Isthmian Script and Egypt's Rosetta Stone. Such objects will continue to appear in the future, and each will require careful study for evidence of reliability. We have done this to the extent of our ability with the Cascajal block and stand by our considered and, to most scholars, valid assessment that it is a key addition to the corpus of inscriptions in Mesoamerica.
2) The authors claim that "[t]he heartland Olmec did not build in stone; therefore, it cannot be an architectural inscription." Then, in their next sentence, they cite precisely such architectural ornaments at the Olmec site of La Venta. We now suspect that the block may have served such a function. Such texts, especially from coastal Veracruz and the Maya region, characteristically are executed in shallow lines. Indeed, the celebrated La Mojarra Stela 1, found in circumstances much like those of the Cascajal block, was housed in the Museo de Antropología, Xalapa, for more than a year before anyone noticed the more than 500 glyphs on its face. It took some further time to see that an additional text appeared on its side, this on a sculpture under exceptionally thorough scrutiny (1). Therefore, we would not be surprised to learn that other previously discovered examples went unnoticed.
3) The signs form purposeful sequences; they do not "randomly 'bunch,' " as Bruhns and Kelker assert. The patterns in the Cascajal text are spelled out carefully in our paper.
4) The block contains signs found on objects with provenance and others that lack it. Some of the latter have been known since the 19th century (i.e., the "Humboldt Celt") (2). One previously unknown sign (glyph 19) appeared years after the discovery of the block in a secure archaeological context at Canton Corralito, Chiapas, Mexico (3). All known hieroglyphic systems in the world relate to pre-existing iconography or codified symbolism; new signs appear when warranted by scribal needs. Any hieroglyphic system that deviated from local iconography would be not only unique but, indeed, an inexplicable phenomenon.
5) If the "insect glyph" was a practical joke, the jokester was an Olmec. The motif is shown three-dimensionally in the diminutive Monument 43 at San Lorenzo, discovered and excavated by one of us (Coe) in 1966 and published by Coe and Diehl in 1980 (4).
We reject the author's specific criticisms and their implicit claim that the block is a modern forgery. However, we appreciate the fact that such challenges are the essence of scientific enquiry and that they eventually lead to truth. We still affirm that the Cascajal block is the oldest example of writing in the New World and among the most important finds ever made in Mesoamerica.
Ma. del Carmen Rodríguez Martínez
Centro del Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia Veracruz, Mexico
Ponciano Ortíz Ceballos
Instituto de Antropología de La Universidad Veracruzana , Xalapa, Mexico
Michael D. Coe
Professor Emeritus , Yale University
Richard A. Diehl
Department of Anthropology , University of Alabama
Stephen D. Houston
Department of Anthropology , Brown University
Karl A. Taube
Department of Anthropology University of California Riverside
Alfredo Delgado Calderón
Centro del Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia ,Veracruz, Mexico