A Decipherment of Epi-Olmec Hieroglyphic Writing

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Science  19 Mar 1993:
Vol. 259, Issue 5102, pp. 1703-1711
DOI: 10.1126/science.259.5102.1703


The decipherment of part of the epi-Olmec script of ancient Mexico, which yields the earliest currently readable texts in Mesoamerica, has been achieved over the last 2 years. This was made possible by the discovery of a stela with a long inscription at La Mojarra, Veracruz, Mexico, in 1986. This decipherment is based on both a reconstruction of the early stages of languages spoken in the region and semantic clues provided by comparison with cultural practices and other script traditions of early southern Mesoamerica. Summarized here is the current state of the phonetic decipherment, the methods used for the decipherment, and results concerning the epi-Olmec language and script. The language identified in the inscriptions is pre—proto-Zoquean, the ancestor of four languages now spoken in the states of Veracruz, Tabasco, Chiapas, and Oaxaca. The decipherment contributes to knowledge of early Mixe-Zoquean language history. The script is more closely related to Mayan hieroglyphic writing than to other early Mesoamerican scripts, and this relation is closer than previously recognized.