The Cascajal Block of the Olmec Civilization

Although many people only think of Egyptian hieroglyphics when discussing the origins of written language, there is evidence that written language systems had been developed independently of each other around the world. Artifacts suggests that the earliest forms of written language originated in Mesopotamia, China, and Mesoamerica. A recent find has opened the door for reanalysis and for questioning regarding the early written records of Mesoamerica and their influence in the development of the area’s early languages. In the early 1990s, while building a road, what is now known as the Cascajal Block was found in Veracruz, Mexico, where the Olmec civilization once stood. This stone block was taken care of by cultural authorities and was examined in 1999 and 2006.

The Cascajal Block

Upon examination, archaeologists Carmen Rodriguez and Ponciano Ortiz revealed that the serpentine block contained sixty two images on one of its surfaces. After investigating the images on the block, they believed that an example of written text had been found. The pictures on the block appear to be arranged in a certain syntax, there are patterns and repeating images suggesting that the images are not just art or pictures but written language. Another interesting observation reveals that the block may have cleared or erased several times indicating possible personal use.

Although most agree that the images on the block are indeed evidence of a writing system, some controversy surrounds the dating of the block. The block was dated to around 900 BCE, this estimate was based on the pot sherds and other artifacts it was found with, so many do not trust that the true context of the artifact is known. If the dating holds true, then the Cascajal Block is the earliest evidence of written language in the Americas. This along with the fact that the images do not seem to connect to any other writing of the area or time period has added to the “mother-sister” debate regarding the Olmec civilization’s influence in Mesoamerica.


Map of Mesoamerica

The discovery of the Cascajal Block and the debates surrounding it can help us understand how different archaeological approaches and circles of thought can be used to gain a deeper understanding of the artifact and the Olmec civilization. Starting with a functionalists approach the block’s possible purposes may be examined, and here experimental archaeology techniques may be used to understand the functionality of the block as a personal writing tool. From this type of investigation, more questions will arise and can be asked. We can approach these questions from a more structuralist or processual view by looking into the social structures of Olmec civilization and how written language, text, and literacy were affected and affected structures such as gender and class or everyday life. With these ideas in mind, what are the possible implication of the Cascajal Block?


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Redrawing the Lines-Understanding the Nazca Lines of Peru

Flying over the Nazca Desert in Southern Peru, lines, geometric patterns, and plants and animals can be seen engraved into the landscape. These lines were created by the Nazca people who were native to the area and thrived from 1-700 CE, predating the Incas by about 500 years.  There have been theories over the past century regarding the line’s purpose and function, the most popular being that the lines were used by ancient aliens as landing strips for their spacecraft. A lot of the attention drawn to the Nazca lines stems from tales of intergalactic travel and the perpetuation of the enchantment and mystery attached to these figures. The allure of uncertainty sparks curiosity, but in the search for answers, unguided curiosity can lead to farfetched and sometimes damaging assumptions. Archaeology seeks to answer how and why people lived the way they did, proper study of artifacts, features, and sites such as the Nazca Lines can help us tell a more accurate story.

Nazca lines in the shape of a spider

In attempts to understand the how the Nazca Lines were used and what they meant for the Nazca culture several archaeological techniques can and were used on the site. For some of the more recent investigations, maps of the surrounding hills and valleys were created from the air. Doing so probably required methods of air reconnaissance such as aerial photography which later would be used with GIS to interpret the landscape. One of the early theories of the lines was studied using similar methods. Paul Kosok, a Geologist, had suggested that the geoglyphs hold astronomical significance aligning with celestial bodies, he even referred to them as “the largest astronomy book in the world.” However, Gerald Hawkins in 1968, using maps and astronomical data had disproved this idea; the figures and lines had appeared to be randomly placed with respect to sky.

Simple investigation such as surveying the landscape and understanding Nazca culture sheds light on common misconceptions. Popular media has lead most of us to believe that the geoglyphs could only be created through complex methods and that completing these works of art would not be possible without a vantage point well above the ground or alien intervention. However, it has been determined that the lines were created just by removing the top layer of soil, the soil in the Nazca desert has been oxidized and appears red, removing the top layer reveals a lighter color. Also, creation of the lines is not complex as some think, archaeologists have determined that with surveying equipment, they are easily replicable. As for the the vantage point issue, many of the images can be seen in their entirety from surrounding foothills. Just as with the burial mounds in the United States, the assumption that the people who inhabited the land were not capable of such creations or that Alien intervention was needed has roots in racism and stunts our ability to think critically about the site and culture. True archaeology helps discard these ideas and find the true story.

View of the lines up close.





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