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The Olmec Cascajal Block

Early Evidence of Olmec Writing?


Cascajal Block: Epigraphic Drawing

Cascajal Block: Epigraphic Drawing

Science (c) 2006

The Cascajal Block is a large serpentine block discovered in a gravel quarry in the state of Veracruz, Mexico, carved with 62 glyphic signs. The block appears to be the oldest form of a written language discovered yet in the Americas. The Cascajal Block was reported in Science magazine for 15 September 2006 by a research team led by Ma. Del Carmen Rodriguez Martinez, and is thought to represent an example of writing by the Early to Middle Formative period Olmec civilization, circa 900 BC.

The incised block was first seen by archaeologists in 1999, when researchers from INAH visited the site of Cascajal, an archaeological site which has been used for some years as a gravel quarry. As a result, the context is in pretty bad shape; most of the site has been severely damaged by quarrying activity for road construction, although there is evidence for at least four mounds and an open area. It is apparent that Cascajal has at least two primary components, one Early Formative (San Lorenzo phase, ca 1200-900 BC) and one Terminal Classic (Villa Alta phase, AD 800-900).

The Early Formative is evidenced by ceramic sherds, figurine fragments, and broken groundstone artifacts; the Terminal Classic is predominantly Fine Orange ceramics. Because the glyphs have no connection to Terminal Classic writing styles, Rodriguez et al. believe the block most likely dates to the latter part of the Early Formative, approximately 900 BC, fully 500 years older than the Maya glyphs discovered recently at San Bartolo.

The Cascajal Block

The block weighs 12 kilograms and is 36 centimeters long, 21 centimeters wide and 13 centimeters thick, and it is made of native serpentine. The object is pillow-shaped in cross-section, with five planes roughly convex and the sixth purposefully ground flat. The 62 signs are carved into this flat surface. The glyphs (well, researchers use the term 'signs' avoiding the culturally-laden 'glyph' designation) consist of 62 shapes cut into the block, or rather 28 different shapes, some of which are repeated for a total of 62 notations. The signs appear to be representational of insects, plants, animals and other objects. The surface has been weathered, and a patina is apparent on the incisions, attesting to the authenticity of the block, according to researchers. High resolution images of the block and the signs have been collected in the Cascajal Block page developed for this feature.

The signs appear to include relationships to carvings on figurines found at Cantón Corralito, reported in Archaeology magazine from Chiapas state in spring 2006. Cantón Corralito is thought to represent an Olmec colony, located within the Soconusco of Mexico's southwestern coast. The discovery of the Cascajal block is another salvo in the so-called mother-sister controversy.

This article is part of the About.com Guide to the Olmec Civilization, and part of the Dictionary of Archaeology.

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