The Oldest Evidence of Writing in the Americas
While working in Scotland in 1970, my wife and I drove around hunting evidence of Celtic artifacts and stone circles -- circles must have had some sort of magical significance -- and visited every old castle we could find. At the end of this period, we drove through England visiting Stonehenge (also circular) at a time when one could actually walk through it and the Avery Stone circle, a very impressive structure to say the least. Meanwhile we knew little or nothing about the ancient civilizations of the New World.
Interestingly, we Americans seem to get more excited by the remains of ancient civilizations in Europe or North Africa than we do those in America. This notion first occurred to me as my wife and I went through some of the ancient Mayan cities in the Yucatan peninsula. We saw things there that were much more interesting than anything we saw in Scotland and England. Stonehenge was said to have had astronomical significance. The same is true of the main temple at Chichén Itzá and I believe at pyramids and temples at numerous other Mayan as well as Aztecan sites. Anyone who thinks that Europe and North Africa had the only interesting ancient civilizations is fooling himself.
On that trip to the Yucatan, we drove to the ancient city of Cobá, which even now, as then, is barely restored. This city had a huge pyramid. Whether it was as large as those in Egypt I don't know but it cannot be less impressive. And the Mayans seem to have built more of them. We climbed to the top of the highest one at Cobá and found ourselves looking over the tree tops of the forest for a very long distance. One other myth was dispelled on that trip. The Mayans didn't disappear. Their civilization did. They are still there.
Not only did it occur to me that we Anglos have too little respect for the civilizations of the Western Hemisphere, we have too little respect for older civilizations per se. I'm sure many if not most "civilized" persons today think that we are somehow smarter than ancient peoples, to say nothing of those who lived back in human prehistory. I suspect this is false. If you wonder why the "superior" Western civilizations were able to wipe out the civilizations in the Western Hemisphere you should read Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond. It will disabuse you of the idea that Westerners were able to do that because they were smarter and thus able to develop better weapons than the native populations had. I think many "civilized" people believe we are more intelligent than contemporary "primitive" people that can still be found in various places in the world. Diamond makes the argument that contemporary medicine and the ready availability of food, at least among highly civilized people, has allowed such "advanced" people to keep alive persons of limited intelligence that would die if living in more primative circumstances (assuming that the survival of the fittest includes the intellectually fittest). Thus it may be that our gene pool has allowed us on average to become of lower intelligence than are "primitive" people.
A few days ago, my morning paper (I feel every time I make reference to the daily paper to start off a blog that I am channeling Mort Sahl) had a short piece on the discovery of a 3,000 year old slab discovered in Mexico that appears to have writing on it. Mexican scientists who have studied it say it has 62 distinct signs, some of which are repeated. These scientists claim that the writing system is reminiscent of the Olmec civilization.
What intrigued me about this Western Rosetta Stone was this passage in the Columbus Dispatch:
The researchers wrote that the sequences of signs reflect "patterns of language, with the probable presence of syntax and language-dependent word orders."The original article appears in the current issue of Science. Unfortunately I have yet been unable to track down the article except in a pay-per-view way but I will somehow get a copy of it and report further.
What does it mean to say that the sequences of signs reflect "patterns of language" or the "presence of syntax and language-dependent word orders." Actually, this last bit is a bit garbled. Syntax is about word order among other things so the conjunction of "syntax" and "language-dependant word orders" wouldn't be two things, as implied by "and." Word order would be evidence of sytax. They should have said simply that there was evidence of word order. This is what I want to check out since it is not so easy to determine that there is language-like word order in a set of strings of symbos.
What I would like to see is evidence of sentences. Contemplate how you would recognize the end of each of the sentences in strings of marks you find on some stone slab on a trip into the wilds of Mexico. Your mind should boggle at this.
One might think that a sentence of English must have a verb so one must hunt for signs that seem to be verb like. Good luck. What these Mexican scientists have found would seem to be evidence of a writing system of some sort even if it doesn't consist of sentences. When one orders a set of things from a company that sells on-line it might come in a box and will often contain a receipt that might have no sentences on it at all -- just the name and address of the company and yours as well and a list of the items in the box. That requires a writing system.
It ought to be possible to tell whether the slab is like a receipt -- lots of things like that have been discovered from older periods -- or is a genuine text of some sort. Good luck in translating it however. As the authors apparently say, it would be nice to have more data. Still, it is interesting to discover additional evidence of sophisticated cultures in this hemisphere before even the Mayan civilization if only so we can get over our hemispheric inferiority complex Humans cane to this hemisphere later than they left Africa and went North and East in the Eastern Hemisphere but they created some impressive civilizations which we White people did our best to destroy. I strongly suggest visiting some of them. It will be good for you.