Catherine Clarke Fox

Anthropologists study people who are no longer living. Items those men, women, and children left behind when they died—everything from clothing to jewelry and tools—tell anthropologists a lot.  And sometimes even their words survive.

Experts believe that a discovery in Mexico is the oldest example of writing ever found in the Americas. The people who created it probably lived 3,000 years ago, long before Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World.

Workers digging in a stone quarry happened to notice a stone block with marks carved onto its surface. They found the large piece of serpentine stone in Cascajal in Veracruz, Mexico, near the capital city of an ancient people called the Olmec.

“There are signs on the block that seem to show religious objects used by the Olmec,” says Dr. Stephen Houston, an anthropologist with Brown University in Rhode Island. “There is a pointy sign that looks very similar to something they used for blood-letting, and another that looks like a throne,” he explains.

Houston, an expert on the writing systems of ancient cultures, says the discovery is exciting because “it makes clear that the Olmec were literate, that they could read and write. It’s like hearing voices from the past," he says.

But experts don’t know exactly what the writing says. If you have ever tried to figure out a message written in code, you have a pretty good idea of the hard work ahead.  Finding other examples of Olmec writing could help crack the code.

Plenty of exciting finds await discovery, says Houston, maybe even by kids reading this article who decide to study past cultures when they grow up. “We could have whole sets of ancient writing which will basically make ancient people speak to us directly,” says Houston. “There are many puzzles to be solved, and this is just one of them.”

Text by Catherine Clarke Fox