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Oldest System of Writing Discovered in the Americas

Archaeologists have uncovered what they say is the oldest writing system by ancient people in the Americas. Experts say the hieroglyphs are not as sophisticated as those of early Egyptians and Chinese, but the writing system confirms the widespread influence of the oldest civilization in the Americas.

The Olmec civilization of what is today Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula flourished between 1,100 and 1,200 B.C.

It was marked by the construction of large cities, colossal head sculptures and religious symbolism that formed the basis of civilizations throughout Mexico and northern Central America for centuries that followed.

Now, researchers have uncovered a tablet with 62 lightly etched hieroglyphs depicting everyday life of the influential Olmec.

Robert Houston is a member of an international team of archaeologists, who are analyzing the stone tablet. The relic was found in the late 1990s by construction workers in a pile of rubble by the side of the road in an area known as Lomas de Tacamichapa in Mexico.

Houston calls the discovery of a new writing system a once in a life time event, but not surprising.

"To be honest, what's surprising is that we hadn't found any evidence of literacy before, because the full package of civilization seems to be there with the Olmec, and it wouldn't be shocking to anybody that they were that literate," he said.

The tablet, known as the Casajal block, measures 26 x 31 centimeters, and weighs almost 12 kilograms.

Houston says the tablet depicts images of everyday life, such as an Olmec throne, corn and possibly fish.

However, interpreting the writing is going to be difficult, Houston says, because the block appears to contain a number of different texts.

"It has some icons that might refer to rulership," he said. "It does not appear, as far as we can tell, [to have] any numbers on it, which is what we would have expected, had it been an early accounting or tribute document."

The Casajal block is described in the journal Science.