National Treasure: Book of Secrets - OLMEC GLYPHS

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This image depicts an example of Olmec glyphs.  Scholars believe that Olmec writing, via glyphs like these, may have been the first writing system in the New World.  Image online via Mesoamericas.


In 1862—when Abraham Lincoln was president and the Resolute was still owned by the Royal Navy—a man named Jose Maria Melgar discovered something unusual in Mexico’s Gulf-coast-state of Veracruz

What he found—the statue of a colossal head—would provide scholars with important clues about early civilization in the Americas.

About sixty years later, someone else found another giant head. What did the statues depict? Who had created them?

Before these discoveries, historians believed that Mayans were the first people in the area. But the statues had interesting facial features which differed from Mayan art. Experts pondered why.

Other artifacts, found in the same general area, were also inconsistent with Mayan work. Some were carvings of a beast which was half-jaguar and half-man. Who was this?

Marshall Saville, director of New York’s Museum of the American Indian, weighed the evidence and determined (in 1929) that the findings were created by a previously unknown people. Hermann Beyer  had reached the same conclusion two years earlier.

They named the civilization Olmec, meaning  “those who live in the land of rubber” in Nahuatl (the ancient language of the Aztecs). Both believed this civilization, and its area of influence, predated the Mayans.

Studies continued and more discoveries were made in the Mexican towns of San Lorenzo and La Venta. The tallest head, found to date, is over eleven feet.

Experts now believe that the Olmec civilization was the first complex society in Mesoamerica. It may have started about 1500 B.C., flourished between 1200 B.C. and 300 B.C.—then disappeared.  No one knows why.

Archaeological digs and discoveries also reveal the Olmecs had a written form of communication. Using a type of hieroglyphics—referred to as Olmec glyphs—they created what are “believed to be the earliest form of writing ever found in the New World.”

The problem, however, is that scholars—such as Dr. Mary Pohl from Florida State University—do not yet fully understand the writings.  (The audio clips are from NPR.)

So ... given that the Olmec civilization flourished in the warm climate of Gulf-coast Mexico, could a connection exist between the Olmecs and Native Americans who lived in the area we know as South Dakota?

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5190stories and lessons created

Original Release: Dec 01, 2007

Updated Last Revision: Jul 20, 2019

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"OLMEC GLYPHS" AwesomeStories.com. Dec 01, 2007. Feb 19, 2020.
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