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Ancient Writing on Mexican Slab Could Be Oldest in Western Hem.

By John Noble Wilford
THE NEW YORK TIMES

A stone slab found in the state of Veracruz in Mexico bears 3,000-year-old writing previously unknown to scholars, according to archaeologists who say it is an example of the oldest script ever discovered in the Western Hemisphere.

The order and pattern of carved symbols appeared to be that of a true writing system, according to the Mexican scientists who have studied the slab and colleagues from the United States. It had characteristics strikingly similar to imagery of the Olmec civilization, considered the earliest in pre-Columbian America, they said.

Finding a heretofore unknown writing system is a rare event. One of the last such discoveries, scholars say, was the Indus Valley script, identified by archaeologists in 1924.

The inscription on the stone slab, with 62 distinct signs, some of them repeated, has been tentatively dated to at least 900 B.C., and possibly earlier. That is 400 years or more before writing had been known to exist in Mesoamerica, the region from central Mexico through much of Central America — and by extension, to exist anywhere in the Hemisphere.

Scientists had not previously found any script that was unambiguously associated with the Olmec culture, which flourished along the Gulf of Mexico in Vera Cruz and Tobasco well before the Zapotec and Maya people rose to prominence elsewhere in the region. Until now, the Olmec were known mainly for the colossal stone heads they created and displayed at monumental buildings in their ruling cities.

The inscribed stone slab was discovered by Maria del Carmen Rodriguez of the National Institute of Anthropology and History of Mexico and by Ponciano Ortiz of Veracruz University. The archaeologists, who are husband and wife, are the lead authors of the report of the find, which will be published Friday in the journal Science.

The signs incised on the 26-pound stone, the researchers said in the report, “link the Olmec to literacy, document an unsuspected writing system and reveal a new complexity to this civilization.”

Noting that the text “conforms to all expectations of writing,” the researchers wrote that the sequences of signs reflected “patterns of language, with the probable presence of syntax and language-dependent word orders.” Several paired sequences of signs, scholars said, have prompted speculation that the text may contain couplets of poetry.

Experts who have examined the symbols on the stone slab said they would need many more examples before they could hope to decipher them and read what is written. It appeared, they said, that the symbols in the inscription were unrelated to later Mesoamerican scripts, suggesting that this Olmec writing might have been practiced for only a few generations and may never have spread to surrounding cultures.

Stephen D. Houston of Brown University, a co-author of the report and an authority on ancient writing systems, acknowledged that this was a puzzle, and would probably be emphasized by some scholars who question the influence of the Olmec on the course of later Mesoamerican cultures.