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Ancient American text gets new reading.

Workers building a riverside dock near the southeastern Mexico settlement of La Mojarra in November 1986 literally stumbled upon a huge rock that they dragged from its muddy bed. The roughly 6 1/2-foot-high, 4 1/2-foot-wide slab displays a carving of a standing man sporting an elaborate headdress and costume, bordered on the top and one side by 21 columns of hieroglyphic writing.

Two investigators now report that they have deciphered much of the story on the four-ton stone, making it the earliest known readable text in the Americas.

The language of the ancient inscription, which dates to A.D. 159, served as the ancestral tongue of four closely related languages now spoken in southern Mexico, the scientists assert. Moreover, the script bears a close relationship to Mayan hieroglyphics, which emerged after A.D. 250 in the vicinity of the Yucatan Peninsula, they contend.

"Tentatively we think several conventions of Mayan hieroglyphics were already developed in the script portrayed on the La Mojarra stone, which the Maya adapted and then developed on their own," argues John S. Justeson, an anthropologist at the State University of New York at Albany. He and Terrence Kaufman, a linguist at the University of Pittsburgh, have deciphered about two-thirds of the La Mojarra text over the past two years.

Several other, less complete examples of writing by "epi-Olmec" cultures, which date from 150 B.C. to A.D. 450 in southern Mexico, have also been found. But only the La Mojarra stone contains enough legible script to allow full-scale decipherment, the investigators say.

Elements of Mayan and epi-Olmec scripts apparently descended from a common ancestor, perhaps the more rudimentary and poorly understood written symbols of the Olmec civilization, which existed from around 1200 B.C. to 500 B.C. in Mexico, Justeson maintains.

The new report, published in the March 19 SCIENCE, supports the view that the earliest scripts developed relatively gradually and challenges the notion that sudden bursts of innovation produced the first writing systems (SN: 3/6/93, p.152).

Justeson and Kaufman employed several tactics to understand the La Mojarra script. First, Kaufman reconstructed the ancestral tongues of the two groups of languages now spoken in the area of Mexico surrounding La Mojarra. Linguists base this work on shared vocabulary and placement of key sounds across languages (SN: 6/9/90, p.360). Kaufman that the inscriptions belonged language related to the mode tongues. This allowed the scientists to decipher some signs for consonant-vowel sequences and better understand the script's grammatical structure, such as the placement of verbs relative to nouns.

They also relied on comparisons with a short text on a statuette discovered nearby that dates to A.D. 162.

Previously deciphered Mayan writing offered further clues to word meanings and stylistic practices in epi-Olmec script. Other lines of evidence included the repeated placement of specific signs that could be linked to certain words.

Of the approximately 150 hieroglyphic signs on the stone, Justeson and Kaufman provide translations for about 100. The meanings of the remaining signs, as well as some strings of signs that denote words, remain unknown, Kaufman says.

The La Mojarra text largely refers to an elite group that supported the king pictured on the stone, Justeson argues. At several points, however, the text - which covers a 15-year period - directly quotes the king.

An elaborate story of power politics emerges, in which the king's supporters help repel attempted usurpers of the throne from within the kingdom. The king's elite allies then describe punishment meted out to enemies, including the king's brother-in-law.

Maya stone monuments offer much less detail about kings and their activities, Justeson notes. "Epi-Olmec royal power seems much more dependent on prominent public involvement of key elite supporters, but this text will undoubtedly fuel much speculation," he says.

Some researchers who have examined the La Mojarra stone, such as archaeologist Sylvia Meluzin of California State University, Fullerton, argue that too little knowledge exists about Mayan writing and the nature of epi-Olmec signs to justify the amount of deciphering claimed by Justeson and Kaufman.

We'll need time to see if their assumptions pan out," Meluzin contends.

Further study of modern languages spoken in southern Mexico -and continued archaeological finds-will contribute to a better understanding of epi-Olmec script, Kaufman asserts.
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Title Annotation:La Mojarra stone, La Mojarra, Mexico
Author:Bower, Bruce
Publication:Science News
Date:Mar 20, 1993
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