TALLAHASSEE, Fla., Dec. 5 (UPI) -- After braving scorching 100-degree heat and choking smoke on the coastal flood plains in Mexico, a team of archaeologists said Thursday they have unearthed the earliest evidence of writing in the New World.
The artifacts, each apparently more than 2,500 years old, were discovered unexpectedly and close to a pyramid of the Olmecs, a culture that remains largely unknown. The relics depict people and animals with glyphs emanating from their mouths resembling text from modern cartoon bubbles, and the researchers said the carvings speak of calendars and kings.
The finds are expected to add new fuel to the debate over how civilizations such as the Mayans arose. The discoverers and others assert the Olmecs represent the "mother culture" that initiated many of the traditions of their neighbors in Mesoamerica -- the collection of cultures that existed in Central America before the days of Columbus.
Along with writing, the traditions included urban settlement, monarchy, the use of maize as a staple crop, monumental architecture, the sacred 260-day calendar and networks to trade highly valued greenstone such as jade.
"Many people had suspected that the Olmec were involved with writing, but we didn't have the proof," lead researcher Mary Pohl, an archaeologist at Florida State University, told United Press International. "This adds to the argument that the Olmecs were really setting the stage for later cultures -- innovating things that people later copied. They led the way for later developments in Mesoamerica."
This traditional view challenges the now popular "sister culture" premise, where a network of societies interacted synergistically as peers. Experts caution, however, that although the finds are significant, they also are preliminary.
"I expect this will make a lot of people angry and a lot of people pleased," said archaeologist John Clark of Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. "We hope there's not going to be a food fight over this, but there might be. The bottom line is we have to do more excavation and find more examples of this stuff," he told UPI.
The artifacts were found on the Gulf Coast roughly three miles northeast of La Venta, where a pyramid of clay and earth some 10 stories tall rises atop a hill of salt above the flat plains and tropical forests in southeastern Mexico. This was the center of Olmec civilization from 900 to 400 B.C.
"There seems to have been a number of centers, but La Venta was the biggest one, and was a major power," Pohl said.
The archaeologists made the find at San Andres in 1998 during an El Niño, the ocean-warming phenomenon linked to widespread weather effects.
"We went in May and June, the hottest time," Pohl recalled. "We had very unusual weather. There was constant smoke because of major fires a bit to the south of us, where smoke actually got up to Florida and Texas. It seemed to have been everywhere. You couldn't see 10 or 15 feet away. It was really kind of harrowing ... we had masks."
Why did a civilization try to rise up amidst this heat?
"It's great for growing corn," said Yale University archaeologist Michael Coe. "This is probably the most fertile area in the entire New World," he told UPI. "They would be crazy to object to this location," no matter how unpleasant the climate. "Rivers that flooded in the rainy season left extremely fertile land. It was like the Fertile Crescent or the Nile."
That same climate is partly why researchers know so little of the Olmec. The dampness destroys wood, cloth and other perishable organic remains, and "the flood plain conditions means a lot is underwater. We had to keep things pumped out," Pohl said.
What is known of the Olmecs is "some of the greatest art ever made in the world," Coe said. "They were amazing sculptors," carving jade and huge multi-ton blocks of volcanic rock brought from many miles away by the rivers. "It's got a lot of very strange supernatural themes in it ultimately based in the natural world, on big tropical animals like the jaguar or crocodile."
Pohl and her team made their discovery unexpectedly, as they were searching for evidence of agriculture before the rise of the Olmec. "The Olmecs just seemed to kind of appear, and we wanted to find out what was going on," she explained. "The origins of the civilization were buried in flood plain soils no one knew very much about."
Their dig revealed an ancient pile of garbage, apparently leftovers from a feast, with deer and turtle bones, human figurines, serving platters, oversized jugs -- and human remains.
"I don't know if they were eating the humans," Pohl said. "Perhaps they were people killed in sacrifice or captives if there was some warfare going on."
However, mixed in with the refuse were fragments of a greenstone plaque and a ceramic cylinder. Carbon dating of the surrounding trash and analysis of the ceramics reveal the relics date back to 650 B.C. and no later, although perhaps earlier. The engravings on the artifacts therefore would predate by at least 350 years the first writing samples of the neighboring Zapotecs -- previously thought to have produced the earliest New World writing -- Pohl said.
The greenstone likely was part of jewelry, Pohl said, while the cylinder was a seal "about the size of your fist. You can put ink on it and roll it across to repeat the pattern on it, across cloth or your body." The seal depicts text emanating from the beak of a bird, symbols the archaeologists interpret as "King '3 Ajaw,'" based on similarities to the scripts of Mayans and others. "It was surprising how similar the glyphs were to later ones such as those of the Maya," Pohl said.
The name 3 Ajaw is derived from the sacred calendar of thirteen 20-day months, which Mesoamericans used to name themselves based on their birthday and for rituals and divination. Because the seal's glyphs emanate from a mouth with scrolls, Pohl's team said they clearly signify spoken words.
This would be the earliest evidence not only of writing, but also of the institution of kingship and the calendar as well. Although the researchers could not translate the signs on the greenstone plaque fragments, they are similar to glyphs seen in later Mayan and other texts, the researchers assert in the Dec. 6 issue of the journal Science.
"Nobody's ever been able to really find any convincing writing for the Olmec -- God knows we've looked," Coe said. "The problem is how you define writing. In a broad sense, you can say it's some physical system of communication that depends on symbols, such as international road sign symbols for instance, 'stop' or 'no parking.'"
On the other hand, Coe continued, "if you want a more narrow definition of writing, it's a communication system that depends on visible signs that are closely tied to a language." The problem is "we don't have any language to go with this. Nobody is 100 percent sure what language the Olmecs spoke. It's hard to interpret anything like this until you know the language."
Archaeologist David Grove of the University of Florida in Gainesville told UPI he thinks the researchers "are making a mountain out of a molehill." He added, "while what they say sounds convincing, I believe that they have misused the very scant data that they have and made some fundamental errors and thus they haven't proved at all that the Olmec invented writing. The few bits of data they have simply cannot be called writing -- yet."
Archaeologist Michael Love of California State University at Northridge said the importance attached to these finds by Pohl's team "is greatly overblown," adding the claim that Mesoamerican writing originated in La Venta "simply isn't demonstrated." The signs found at San Andres could "best be called ... precursors to writing. True writing is unlikely to have been developed at a single site, but only through elite interaction over a broad area," he told UPI.
Linguist Martha Macri of the University of California at Davis agreed.
"I think it's likely that writing and social development took place in a context of many cultures interacting with each other, not just one single ethnic or political group," she told UPI.
Love and archaeologist Norman Hammond of Boston University both think the findings are significant, however. Hammond even said they support the sister culture hypothesis, because they have parallels among the Mayan finds of the same age.
Clark, Love and the others all called for further digs at Olmec sites. "This is a tantalizing piece of evidence that does need, however, more data to really be sure about it," Coe said.
(Reported by Charles Choi, UPI Science News, in New York)