This Paper was presented at the 1997 Central States Anthropological Society Meeting. It provides a good summary of the decipherment of the Olmec Writing System
We summarize the decipherment of the Olmec
writing. It explains that Olmec is a syllabic writing
system used in the Olmec heartland from 900 BC- AD
450. The decipherment of the Olmec writing of ancient
The Decipherment of Olmec
The Olmec people introduced writing to the
Over a decade ago Winters (1979, 1997) deciphered
the Olmec writing and discovered that you could read
the Olmec inscriptions using the sound value of the Vai signs. The Olmecs spoke and
aspect of the Manding (Malinke-Bambara)
language spoken in
Scholars have long recognized that the Olmecs engraved many sysmbols or signs on pottery, statuettes, batons/scepters, stelas and bas reliefs that have been recognized as a possible form of writing (Coe, 1965; Gay ,1973; Popenoe and Hatch , 1971 ; Soustelle, 1984). These experts recognized that the system of dots and bars whether associated with gyphs or not, found on Olmec artifacts probably indicated their possession of a system of chronology (Soustelle, 1984). As a result, we find that the Olmec monuments: Altar 7, of LaVenta; Stela no.7 of LaVenta; Monument E at Tres Zapotes; Stela C of Tres Zapotes; and the Tutla statuette are engraved with calendrical information (Morell, 1991; Soustelle, 1984).
Although many Meso-Americanists accept the view
that the Olmecs possessed calendrical
symbols controversey surrounds the presence of
writing among the Olmecs. Wiener (1922) and Lawrence
(1961) have maintained that the Olmec writing was
identical to the Manding writing used in
Coe Has agrued that the Olmec people used a sign system he calls "pars pro toto, where a part stands for the whole--which transmitted information of a religious-poltical nature but it was not writing" (Morell, 1991, 269). Justeson observed that "the symbols on the celts differ from normal iconography because you could segment out the significant parts" (Morell, 1991, 269).
These epigraphers believe that this alleged Olmec
iconography did not evolve into writing until Epi-Olmec
times (150 BC- 400 AD) (Morell, 1991). This Olmec writing is called the Southeastern or Isthmian
tradition (because it originated at Olmec sites in
the highlands of
Wiener (1922) on the otherhand, claimed that the inscriptions on the Tuxtla,
statuette which was made by the Olmec was engraved
with writing used by the Manding speaking people of
Although, Wiener (1922) did not know anything about the Olmec people, he had found startling linguistic, religious, and anthroplogical data supporting a Manding substratum in Mayan and Aztec culture, and believed that the inscriptions on the Tuxtla statuette was further confirmation of the Manding influence among the Maya.
Meso-Americanists have rejected the findings of Wiener (1922) because they repudiate any diffusionist influences on the early Mexican cultures. Eventhough these scholars reject the idea of West African people influencing the Olmecs, historical , archaeological, and linguistic data may indicate the migration of Manding speaking people to Meso-America in ancient times (Winters , 1979; Wuthenau, 1980).
The some of the Olmec people may have come from
Amerindian Migration Traditions
The Olmec civilization was unique. It originated full bloom at some forty sites by 1200 B.C. (Coe, 1989; Tate, 1995). Coe (1989) noted that:
"On the contrary, the evidence, although negative, is that the Olmec style of art, and Olmec engineering ability suddenly appeared full-fledged from about 1200 B.C. (p. 82).
This archaeological evidence also led Tate (1995) to note that "Olmec culture as far as we know seems to have had no antcedents, no material models remain for its monumental constructions and sculptures and the ritual acts captured in small objects" (p.65).
The Olmec civilization was developed along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico in the states of Tabasco and Veracruz (Pouligny 1988:34).The Pacific area was early colonized by Olmec people in middle Preclassic times (Morley, Brainerd & Sharer 1984).
The Maya were not the first to occupy the
The linguistic evidence suggest that around 1200 B.C., a new linguistic group arrived in the Gulf region of Mexico.M. Swadesh (1953) has presented evidence that at least 3200 years ago a non- Maya speaking group wedged itself between the Huastecs and the Maya. Soustelle (1984: 29) tells us that "We cannot help but think that the people that shattered the unity of the Proto-Mayas was also the people that brought Olmec civilization to the region".
Weiner (1922) believe that some of these foreign people may have come
Dr. Wiercinski supports this claim with skeletal evidence from several Olmec sites where he found skeletons that were analogous to the West African type . Wiercinski discovered that 13.5 percent of the skeletons from Tlatilco and 4.5 percent of the skeletons from Cerro de las Mesas were Africoid (Wiercinski & Jairazbhoy 1975).
Traditions mentioned by Bernardino Sahagun,
a famous authority on the Indian people of
Friar Diego de Landa (1978:8,28) , in Yucatan Before and After the Conquest, wrote that "some old men of Yucatan say that they have heard from their ancestors that this country was peopled by a certain race who came from the East, whom God delivered by opening for them twelve roads through the sea".
This tradition probably refers to the twelve migrations of the Olmec people. This view is supported by the stone reliefs from
It is clear that Stela No.5, from Izapa not only indicates the tree of life, it also confirms
the tradition recorded by Friar Diego de Landa that
the Olmec people made twelve migrations to the New
World. This stela also confirms the tradition
recorded by the famous Mayan historian Ixtlixochitl,
that the Olmec came to
On Stela No.5 we see a boat surrounded by waves. In the center of the boat on Stela No.5, we find a large tree. This tree has seven branches and twelve roots. The seven branches probably represent the seven major clans of the Olmec people. The twelve roots of the tree extending into the water from the boat probably signifies the "twelve roads through the sea", mentioned by Friar Diego Landa.
The Amerindian migration traditions and Stela
No.5, probably relates to a segment of the Olmec, who
landed in boats in Panotha or Pantla
(the Huasteca) and moved along the coast as far as
Bernardino de Sahagun (1946) a famous authority
This Amerindian historical and linguistic evidence indicates that a new
linguistic group entered the Olmec heartland around
the time we find the Olmec culutre
Justeson and Kaufman (1993) and Marcus (1989) manitain that the Olmec people spoke a Otomanguean language. The Otomanguean family include Zapotec, Mixtec and Otomi to name a few.
The hypothesis that the Olmec spoke an Otomanguean language is not supported by the contemporary spatial distribution of the languages spoken in the Tabasco/Veracruz area. Thomas Lee (1989, 223) noted that
"...closely Mixe, Zoque and Popoluca languages are spoken in numerous villages in a mixed manner having little or no apparent semblance of linguistic or spatial unity. The general assumption made by the few investigators who have considered the situation, is that the modern linguistic pattern is a result of the disruption of an Old homogeneous language group by more powerful neighbors or invaders...."
If this linguistic evidence is correct, many of the languages in the Otomanguean family are spoken by people who may have only recently settled in the Olmec heartland, and may not reflect the people that invented the culture we call Olmecs today.
The Olmecs probably spoke an Manding language (Winters, 1979, 1997). This view is supported by the Manding substratum in the Otomi (Winters, 1979), and Mayan languages (Wiener, 1920-22; Winters, 1979).
African Origin of the Mayan Writing
The major evidence for the African origin of the Olmecs comes from the writing of the Mayan people. As mentioned earlier most experts believe that the Mayan writing system came from the Olmecs (Soustelle, 1984). The evidence of African style writing among the Olmecs is evidence for Old World influence in Mexico
The Olmecs probably founded writing in the
An Olmec origin for many PreClassic
Maya sites, would explain the cover-up of the jaguar stucco mask pyramids with
classic Maya pyramids at these sites. It would also explain Schele
and Freidel's (1990) claim that the first king of
B. Stross (1973) mentions the Mayan tradition for a foreign origin of Mayan writing. This idea is also confirmed by Mayan oral tradition (Tozzer, 1941), and C.H. Brown (1991) who claimed that writing did not exist among the Proto-Maya.
Terrence Kaufman has proposed that the Olmec spoke a Mexe-Zoquean speech and therefore the authors of Olmec writing were Mexe-Zoquean speakers. This view fails to match the epigraphic evidence. The Olmec people spoke a Manding (Malinke-Bambara) language and not Zoquean.
There is a clear African substratum for the origin of writing among the Maya (Wiener, 1922). All the experts agree that the Olmec people gave the Maya people writing (Schele & Freidel, 1990; Soustelle, 1984). Mayanist also agree that the Proto-Maya term for writing was *c'ihb' or *c'ib'.
______________________________________________________________ ___Figure 1. Mayan Terms for Writing
Figure 1. Mayan Terms for Writing
Yucatec c'i:b' Chorti c'ihb'a Mam c'i:b'at
Lacandon c'ib' Chol c'hb'an Teco c'i:b'a
Itza c'ib' Chontal c'ib' Ixil c'ib'
Mopan c'ib' Tzeltalan c'ib'
Proto-Term for write *c'ib'
The Mayan /c/ is often pronounced like the hard Spanish /c/ and has a /s/ sound. Brown (1991) argues that *c'ihb may be the ancient Mayan term for writing but, it can not be Proto-Mayan because writing did not exist among the Maya until 600 B.C. This was 1500 years after the break up of the Proto-Maya (Brown, 1991).
Landa's tradition concerning the origin of writing among the Maya supports the linguistic evidence (Tozzer, 1941). Landa noted that the Yucatec Maya claimed that they got writing from a group of foreigners called Tutul Xiu from Nonoulco (Tozzer, 1941).
The Tutul Xi were probably Manding speaking Olmecs. The term Tutul Xiu, can be translated using Manding as follows:
Tutul, "Very good subjects of the Order".
Xiu, "The Shi (/the race)".
"The Shis (who) are very good Subjects of the cult-Order". The term Shi, is probably related to the Manding term Si, which was also used as an ethnonym.
The Mayan term for writing is derived from the Manding term
*se'be. Below are the various terms for writing used by the Manding/Mande people for writing.
Manding Term for Writing
Malinke se'be Serere safe
Bambara se'be Susu se'be
Dioula se'we' Samo se'be
Sarakole safa W. Malinke safa
Proto-Term for writing *se'be , *safâ
Brown has suggested that the Mayan term c'ib' diffused from the Cholan and Yucatecan Maya to the other Mayan speakers. This term is probably derived from Manding *Se'be which is analogous to *c'ib'. This would explain the identification of the Olmec or Xi/Shi people as Manding speakers.There are also many cognate Mayan and Manding terms (Wiener, 1920-22) .
The Decipherment of the Olmec Writing
It is generally accepted that the decipherment of an unknown language/script
requires 1) bilingual texts and/or 2) knowledge of the cognate language(s). It
has long been felt by many Meso-Americanist
that the Olmec writing met non of these criteria
because, no one knew exactly what language was spoken by the Olmec that appear suddenly at
This was a false analogy. For over 50 years there has ben evidence that the Olmec people probably wrote their inscriptions in the Manding language (Winters, 1979,1997) and the Manding writing from North Africa called Libyco-Berber, was used to write the Olmec (Winters, 1979, 1997) and Mayan (Rafinesque, 1832) language (see The Vai Writing).
To decipher an unknown script it is unnecessary to reconstruct the Proto-language of the authors of the target script. In both the major decipherments of ancient scripts, e.g., cuneiform and ancient Egyptian, contemporary languages in their synchronic states were used to gleam insight into the reading of dead languages. No one can deny, that it was Champolion's knowledge of Coptic, that led to his successful decipherment of Egyptian hieroglyphics.
The view that Africans originated writing in
By 1832, Rafinesque noted the similarities between the Mayan glyphs and the Libyco-Berber writing. And Leo Wiener (1922, v.3), was the first researcher to recognize the resemblances between the Manding writing and the symbols on the Tuxtla statuette. In addition, Harold Lawrence (1962) noted that the "petroglyphic" inscriptions found throughout much of the southern hemisphere compared identically with the writing system of the Manding.
Rafinesque (1832) published an important paper on the Mayan writing that helped in the decipherment of the Olmec Writing. In this paper he discussed the fact that when the Mayan glyphs were broken down into their constituent parts, they were analogous to the ancient Libyco-Berber writing.
. The Libyco-Berber writing can not be read in either Berber or Taurag, even though these people use an alphabetic script similar to the Libyco-Berber script which is syllabic CV and CVC in structure.
This was an important article because it offered the possibility that the Mayan signs could be read by comparing them to the Libyco-Berber symbols (Rafineque, 1832). This was not a farfetched idea, because we know for a fact that the cuneiform writing was used to write four different languages: Sumerian, Hittite, Assyrian and Akkadian.
The Mande people often refer to themselves as Sye or Si 'black, race, family, etc.'. The Si people appear to have been mentioned by the Maya (Tozzer, 1941). Tozzer (1941) claimed that the Yucatec Maya said that the Tutul Xiu (shiu), a group of foreigners from zuiva, in Nonoualoco territory taught the Maya how to read and write. This term Xiu agrees with the name Si, for the Manding people (also it should be noted that in the Manding languages the plural number is formed by the suffix -u, -wu).
Winters (1979, 1997) was able to read the
Libyco-Berber signs because they were analogous to
the Manding or Si signs
recorded by Delafosse (1899). These Si people , now centered in
The second clue to the Manding origin of the Olmec writing was provided by Leo Wiener in Africa and
the Discovery of America (1922,v.3). Wiener presented evidence that the
High Civilizations of
In Table 1, we show a comparison of the Libyco-Berber, Vai syllabic signs, and Olmec signs from selected sites to test the hypothesis of Lawrence (1961), Wiener (1922) and Winters (1979, 1983), that the Olmec writing is of Manding origin .
The phonetic values of the Olmec signs are the phonetic values the Vai syllabary, which is analogous to the Olmec writing (Winters, 1979, 1997). Progress in deciphering the Olmec writing has depended largely on a knowledge of the Malinke-Bambara (Manding) languages and the Vai writing system (Delofosse, 1899). This language is monosyllabic. The terms in the Manding languages explain the characteristics of the Olmec civilization.
The Olmec inscriptions are primarily of three types 1) talismanic inscriptions found on monuments, statuettes, vessels, masks, and celts; 2) obituaries found on celts and other burial artifacts; and 3) signs on scepters denoting political authority.
The Olmec script has two forms or stages : 1) syllabic and 2) hieroglyphic. The syllabic script was employed in the Olmec writing found on the masks, celts, statuettes and portable artifacts in general. The hieroglyphic script is usually employed on bas-reliefs, stelas (i.e., Mojarra, and tomb wall writing. The only exception to this rule for Olmec writing was the Tuxtla statuette.
Olmec is an agglutinative language. Olmec had mixed syntactic constituents because of its use of affixes. The basic word order for Olmec was subject (S), object (O), and vowel (V) in simple declarative sentences. Due to the use of several prefixes in Olmec there are some VO sentences in the corpus of Olmec inscriptions
The Olmec script has 13 consonants:
In the Olmec script the consonants k, m, and n, was often placed in front of selected Olmec words, e.g., be : mbe, ngbe; and pe: Kpe. In these instances the nasal consonant can be dropped, and the monosyllabic word following the initial consonant element can be read , e.g., Kpe= pe ' spacious, pin down, flat lands, etc. Thusly, the appearance of CCV or CCCV Olmec forms are the result of the addition of initial consonantal elements to monosyllabic Olmec terms.
Olmec Syllabic Writing
The famous inscribed celts of offering no.4 LaVenta, indicate both the plain
and cursive syllabic Olmec scripts .
In the cursive form of the writing the individual syllabic signs are joined to one another, in the plain Olmec writing the signs stand alone. The cursive Olmec script probably evolved into Olmec hieroglyphics.
The inscriptions engraved on celts and batons are more rounded than the script used on masks, statuettes and bas-reliefs. The pottery writing on the Los Bocas and Tlatilco ware are also in a fine rounded style.
In this chapter we will use the inscribed celts found at La Venta in 1955, at offering No.4, the inscribed jadeite celt from near El Sitio, and the Black Stone Serpent Scepter of Cardenas, Tabasco as examples of the Olmec writing. All the translations of Olmec artifacts are based on the Manding dictionary of Delafosse (1921).
The celts of La Venta offering no.4, were discovered by Drucker in 1955. These celts show both the plain and cursive forms of the Olmec script. These inscribed celts were part of a collection of 16 figurines and jade and serpentine found in offering no.4 (Soustelle, 1984).
In La Venta offering no.4, fifteen figurines were arranged around a central figure. According to the inscriptions on the celts in this collection, the personage buried in this tomb was
Pè. The bold head of Pè suggest that he was their cult leader.
A pit had been dug over the incised celts and figurines, a hole leading from the earth's surface down to the burial cache suggest that this was used for pouring libations on the figurines. This view is supported by the fact that the inscriptions written in the plain Olmec syllabic style ( Fig. 1), mentions the fact that Pè tomb was to act as a talisman or protective shrine for the faithful.
The six celts found in La Venta offering no.4, were arranged in a semi-circle. Four of the celts were engraved. The first and last celts in the semi-circle were not engraved.
Moving from left to right two engraved jade celts when joined together depict an Olmec priest wearing an elaborate headdress and holding what appears to be a torch or baton in his hand.
This figure probably represented Pè. It is
analogous to the figure engraved on a jade Breastplate (no. 13:583), now
located in the
The first two Laventa celts probably were originally joined together and served as a symbol of authority for the deceased priest while he was alive. The breakage of this celt into two parts probably symbolized the withdrawal of the priest's physical body, from the physical plane to the spiritual plane. The placement in the tomb of Pè's "celt of power" was meant to hold his spiritual power at the grave site.
The third engraved celt at La Venta offering no.4, was engraved in the cursive Olmec script.
In the text of the cursive script we find Pè's obituary.
Transliteration of Symbols on Figure 1
Fè fè mi pè po gbè
without breath void consumed Pè pure/holy below (in)
lu bè ma
the family habitation lay low the celebrity (the) Lord (in)
yu ka-pè ba ko
the big hemisphere tomb Ka-Pè the Great (in) the back of
se yu we
(to) possess for posterity the big hemisphere tomb Hence
ta lu ba i
this place the family habitation great/strong thine
gba kyè be po
fixed in the ground inheritance/estate here pure/holy
lay low the celebrity lay low the celebrity.
" Without breath. Void. Consumed (lies) the Hole Pè, below the family habitation. Lay low the celebrity, the Lord, in the hemisphere tomb. The Great Ka-Pè, in the back of the big hemisphere tomb, possesses (this place) for posterity. Thine inheritance (is) fixed in this ground. Here the pure celebrity lays low. Lay low the celebrity".
fè, v. to be void, empty, without breath
mi, v. consumed
Pè, proper name; v. spacious, pin down
po, adj. : superlative of white translated as holy, pure, the good
gbè, v. lay low, below; virtue
lu, family habitation
bè, v: lay low the celebrity
ma, it can be translated as "Great one" or "Lord"; it
can also be a suffix joined to a substantive or a verb
to show intensity.
yu, the big hemisphere tomb
Ka, a title given to Olmec elites
ba, adj.: great
ka, adv.: in the back of
se, possess (this place) for posterity
we, adv.: hence
ta, this place, place, here
lu, n.: the family habitation
ba, adj.: great
i, pronominal particle of the second person: thine, thou, you
gba, transitive v.: fixed in the ground
kyè, inheritance, estate
It is interesting to note that on this celt, after the use of the Olmec term po, a /g/ or /m/ is prefixed to bè, to make this word into a CCV term. Another interesting fact about this inscription is that reduplication is used at the end, and beginning of this inscription to denote emphasis.
The fourth engraved celt from left to right in La Venta offering no.4, is written in the plain Olmec script.
This inscription declares that the tomb of Pè is a talisman of great power.
Transliteration of Figure 1
Kyè gyo dè gbè
A man the leader of the cult indeed virtue
le gyo we mbè to
to be consecration hence here place of rest
"The man (was) the leader of the cult. Indeed (a man of) virtue to be an object of consecration. Hence here a place of rest (a) good talisman (protective shrine for the faithful)".
gyo, one faithful to the cult/deity, object of consecration,
leader of the cult association; talisman, amulet
dè, suffix of determination or definite article; indeed
gbè, virtue, righteousness, etc.
le, verbal postposition: to be
we, adv.: therefore, hence
to, place of rest
he, adj.: good
Navarrete (1974) , has published two interesting engraved pieces. They are scepters, the Black Stone Serpent Scepter (Fig.3) and, an incised jadeite celt from El Sitio (Fig. 4).
The Black stone scepter from
There are two forms of Olmec hieroglyphic writing : the pure hieroglyphics ( or picture signs); and the phonetic hieroglyphics, which are a combination of syllabic and logographic signs. Below is an Olmec sign from the Tuxtla statuette:
pe extensive,pit hole in ground
gyo(> jo) effective talisman, wonder
a this, it
Translation " Extensive (and) effective wonder making power. This man is great".
The phonetic hieroglyphic Olmec signs do not stand for one word, these signs are Olmec compound symbols organized to make a picture. There are two types of Olmec compound-signs: subordinate and synthetic.
In the subordinate compound signs we see the combining of two or more Olmec base signs or roots representing a noun and a verb. Examples of this compound type are found in the El Sitio celt and the Tuxtla statuette.