14. The Story of the Olmecs
The mysterious Olmecs are believed to have lived in parts of what is now Mexico around 1100 BCE. This makes their civilization the earliest known civilization in Mexico. We didn’t know a whole about them until the early 1990s. That’s when a group of Veracruz villagers dug up a great stone block that ended up being covered in ancient writing, older than anything else ever seen in the region. It was one of archaeology’s greatest finds. Researchers combed over the block examining the writings and were able to make some startling discoveries. First, it belonged to the mythic Olmecs. Then, experts believe that the writing is so structured that it has all the hallmarks of distinct sentences, even error corrections, and what might be poetic couplets. They further believe that the script indicated that the stone slab was someone’s private “copy” of the writing. If true, that would mean, there must be other “documents,” records, trading routes, or possibly ancient literature, still waiting to be discovered!
The only downside is that we can’t decipher their language. It’s the earliest known writing system in the Americas, and it’s like nothing else we’ve ever seen. Without its own Rosetta Stone, it has so far proved virtually impossible to understand the Olmecs. As puzzling as the Indus Valley script is to researchers, the Olmec language is worse. Besides being the first script on the continent, experts agree that it looks like they were able to write complex stories, detailed records, and even chronicle their religious traditions. We’ve yet to uncover any evidence of the Olmecs after 300 BCE; where they went or what happened to them is unknown. What could possibly be one of the greatest cultural discoveries in history lies just outside our grasp.