First Words

Archaeologists unearth the earliest evidence of writing found to date in the Americas.

In the heart of Mexico nearly 3,000 years ago, the Olmec people built the first cities in the Americas. Now it appears that they also constructed the first written language in the New World. The evidence comes in the form of a ceramic seal dated to about 650 BC that bears several different hieroglyphs.

Florida State University's Mary Pohl and her teammates recently unearthed the fist-sized artifact while conducting excavations near the Olmec center of La Venta in the Mexican state of Tabasco. The cylindrical seal contains the raised image of a bird with two symbols emerging from of its mouth. By comparing these symbols to later Maya hieroglyphs, Pohl was able to conclude that the bird was speaking the words, "King 3 Ajaw." In the Mayan language, the word Ajaw means both 'lord' and a day name in the 260-day calendar. "3 Ajaw was probably the name of an Olmec king," explains Pohl. "Olmec rulers are often depicted in bird costume."

During King 3 Ajaw's rule, the cylinder seal would have been dipped in ink and rolled across bark or cloth to leave a repeating pattern. Bearing the king's name would have been a mark of both status and allegiance. "A person would have had to be very important to display this writing," says Pohl.

King 3 Ajaw may have ruled over the nearby site of La Venta, which was founded around 850 BC. The city's massive pyramids and plazas were abandoned about four centuries later, when the Mayan centers to the east became dominant. The Olmec culture has often been considered a "mother culture" for the later Maya people - writing may now be added to the list of cultural achievements that the Olmec passed on.

The dotted symbol on this fist-sized seal, which is spoken by a bird, might be the oldest evidence for the Mesoamerican calendar. Drawing of the cylinder seal from San Andrés, La Venta, Tabasco, Mexico.
Photo: M. Pohl et al., www.sciencemag.org

The Olmec were the first in Central America to build large cities. Pyramids, such as this one at La Venta, and monuments demonstrated their rulers' power. Comparisons between Isthmian, Mayan, and Oaxacan glyphs.
Photo: Christopher Von Nagy, www.sciencemag.org

Map showing Mesoamerican archaeological sites; early
monuments with glyphs; and the geographic distribution of the Isthmian, Mayan, and Oaxacan scripts.