The Decipherment of the Olmec Writing System
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 Mexico provides us with keen insight into the world of the Olmec. These earliest text written in America, helps us to understand the culture religion and politics of the Olmec.
The Decipherment of Olmec
The Olmec people introduced writing to the New World. Many Meso-American accept the possibility that the Olmecs were the first to 1) invent a complex system of chronology; 2) a method of calculating time; and 3) a hieroglphic script which was later adopted by the Izapan and Mayan civilizations (Soustelle, 1984). As a result, the Olmec people left numerous inscriptions on monuments, celts and portable artifacts that give us keen insight into the Olmec culture, religion and politics.
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 West Africa (Winters, 1979, 1980, 1981,1984).
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 Africa. Michael Coe and John Justeson on the otherhand beleive that the Olmecs possessed a form of iconography but not writing (Morell, 1991).
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 Guatemala), and probably influenced both the Izapan and Mayan styles of writing.
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 West Africa.
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 Africa. Winters (1979, 1997) believes that the Olmec spoke an aspect of the Manding languages spoken in West Africa, not Mixe- Zoquean as suggested by Terrence Kaufman.
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 Yucatan and Gulf regions of Mexico. It is evident from Maya traditions and the artifacts recovered from many ancient Mexican sites that a different race lived in Mayaland before the Mayan speakers settled this region.
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 from West Africa. Dr. Wiercinski (1972) claims that some of the Olmecs were of African origin.
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 Mexico, records the settlement of Mexico by a different race from the present Amerindian population. Sahagun says that these "Eastern settlers of Mexico landed at Panotha, on the Mexican Gulf. Here they remained for a time until they moved south in search of mountains. Other migration to Mexico stories are mention in the Popol Vuh, the ancient religious and historical text compiled by the Quiche Mayan Indians.
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 Izapa, Chiapas , Mexico published by the New World Foundation. In Stela 5, from Izapa we see a group of men on a boat riding the waves (Wuthenau 1980; Smith 1984 ; Norman 1976).
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 Mexico in "ships of barks " and landed at Pontochan, which they commenced to populate (Winters 1984: 16). These Blacks are frequently depicted in the Mayan books/writings carrying trade goods.
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 Guatemala. This would correspond to the non-Maya speaking group detected by Swadesh that separated the Maya and Huasteca speakers 2000 years ago.
Bernardino de Sahagun (1946) a famous authority on Mexico also supports the extra-American origin of the Olmecs when he wrote that A"Eastern settlers of Mexico landed at Panotla on the Mexican Gulf. Here they remained for a time until they moved south in search of mountains".The reported route of the Panotha settlers recorded by Sahagun interestingly corresponds to the spread of the Olmecs in Meso-America. The Olmec civilization extended from the Gulf of Mexico to Chalcatzingo, in the Mexican highlands along the Pacific coast (Morley, Brainerd & Sharer 1983, p.52).
This Amerindian historical and linguistic evidence indicates that a new linguistic group entered the Olmec heartland around the time we find the Olmec culutre in Mexico (Soustelle, 1984). Winters (1979,1997) claims that this new linguistic group was a group of Manding people that migrated from West Africa to Mexico.
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 Mexico. Schele and Freide (1990) have discussed the Olmec influence over the Maya. This agreed with Brainerd and Sharer's, The ancient Maya (1983, p.65) concept of colonial Olmec at Mayan sites. Moreover, this view is supported by the appearance of jaguar stucco mask pyramids (probably built by the Olmecs) under Mayan pyramids e.g., Cerros Structure 5-C-2nd, Uxaxacatun pyramid and structure 5D-22 at Tikal. This would conform to Schele and Freidel's belief that the monumental structures of the Maya were derived from Olmec prototypes.
Uxaxactun Pyramid 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 Palenque was the Olmec leader U-Kix-chan; and that the ancient Maya adopted many Olmec social institutions and Olmec symbolic imagery.
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'.
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 San Lorenzo and La Venta in Veracruz, around 1200 B.C.
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 America is not new. Scholars early recognized the affinity between Amerindian scripts and the Mande script(s).
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 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 West Africa and the Sahelian region formerly lived in an area where Libyco-Berber inscriptions are found (Winters, 1983, 1986). Using the Manding languages Winters (1983) was able to decipher the Libyco-Berber inscriptions (see The Vai Writing System.
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 Mexico (Maya and Aztecs) had acquired many of the cultural and religious traditions of the Malinke-Bambara (Manding people) of West Africa. In volume 3, of Africa and the Discovery of America, Wiener discussed the analogy between the glyphs on the Tuxtla statuette and the Manding glyphs engraved on rocks in Mandeland.
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 Syllabary
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.
LaVenta Offering no.4
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 National Museum of Anthropology at Mexico City ( Wuthenau, 1980).
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 Cardenas, Tobasco ( Fig. 3) has only two characters to/tu and bè. These characters indicate that this was indeed a scepter and symbolized the sovereign's high office and power. The signs tu bè can be interpreted as "Royalty rest here" or "Scrupulous observer of the Law".
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.
El Sitio Celt
Below we find examples of the subordinate Olmec compound signs:
Pè to ta
"The abode of refuge (it) is thrust in the ground"
Pè gyo. A kyè ba
"Extensive (and) effective wonder working
power. This man (is) great".
A ku po bu mbo gyu
"It is a pure stem; give a blow to
The characters written on the incised jadeite celt from El Sitio , Mexico was written in the hieroglyphic script . This hieroglyphic writing represents compound syllabic Olmec characters in an ornate style, which probably evolved into the Mayan and Izapan hieroglyphic scripts. This ornate style of writing usually has two or more syllabic signs joined together as illustrated below.
Transliteration of El Sitio Inscriptions
Po ta tu bè ta
Purity here take refuge Bè sacred object/solitary
tu to ta tu i
Ruler sequestered here place of rest thou/you
fè bè gbè po
in the company unite the pure purity
po gba ta pè ta
purity plant propriety to spread over this place
se ta a ta
to possess for posterity sacred object he this place
"Purity, take refuge here. Bè is here. The Ruler is sequestered (he who was righteous). Here is (his) place of rest. You are in the company (of the Deity). Unite with the purest of the Pure. Plant purity and propriety to spread over this place (and) to possess for posterity. He (is ) a sacred object. This place the Lord rest".
ta, here, this place; place of rest, rest; Partisan, supporter;
propriety; to be sacred, sacred object, mystic order;
tu, Ruler, King; take refuge
bè, name; to be, exist; unite
i, pronominal article, 2nd person, you, thou, thine
fè, in the company
gbè, pure, virtuous, righteous
po, purity, pure, the good
gba, to plant
pè, spacious, pin down; spread over
se, v. to lead; to be in possession for posterity
a, pronominal article, 3rd person, he, she, it
ma, Lord, ancestor
The synthetic Olmec compound signs represent a compound expression. These signs reflect a complete sentence. In the synthetic compound we have VO type sentence as opposed to the SOV type sentence associated with Olmec subordinate compound signs.
Below are several examples:
Bè ta mè
"Exist in a unique state of comprehension". or
Bè ta gyu
"Exist in a unique state of spiritual
ki ku lu
" Send away the personal character". or
"Send away the personality to the family
Po be ta
Purity exist here. or
(1) Lay low the celebrity alone
(2) " " " " in a good situation
(3) " " " " to sleep
(4) " " " " a sacred object
Olmec hieroglyphic signs also appear on the jaguar stucco pyramids and inside the Preclassic tombs discovered under them. The Olmec hieroglyphic signs are seen in the panels of the first temple of Cerros, Structure 5C (Schele & Freidel, 1990).
There are two panels at the Cerros pyramid the Eveningstar panel and the Morningstar panel. On the top of the head of the Evening-star jaguar and the morning star jaguar stucco mask at cerros we have the Olmec sign of lineage bi.
Inscriptions with the Olmec Bi sign
In Olmec bi, means 'today, present, moment, lineage'. But the symbols on either side of the Eveningstar and morning star panel are different.
On the morning star panel we find the
tu su ba su glyph; whereas on the Eveningstar panel we have the
tu fa ta su glyph. The tu fa ta su sign
is found on the setting sun panels. In Olmec tu su ba su "(At this ) abode offer up libations to the Ba (soul), offer up libations".
The headband glyph found over the jaguar
mask at Cerros was a symbol used to denote the pure descent of the personage in the tomb of the pyramid. The central symbol in this glyph or is read bi. This
sign is also found on many Olmec Preclassic sites in addition to Cerros, e.g., the greenstone pectoral from Tikal, and in the Tuxtla statuette inscription.
The headband glyph includes three Olmec signs Bi , Ta , Po . As a result from right to left Po Bi ta. Po ta , or
"Pure lineage and Propriety. Pure Propriety".
My research indicates that the common people visited the Cerros pyramid and other burial sites to offer libations, and obtain blessings from the personages buried therein. To denote the divine status of many temples the Preclassic Maya-Olmec folk left inscriptions with the Su ba Su glyph in figure 7, we have five examples of the Su ba Su or Tu Su ba Su sign
from 1) Tuxtla statuette, 2) Cerros, 3) Rio Azul and 4) Tikal.
The translation of these signs are below:
1. Su su, "Offer up Many libations".
2. Su ba Su, "Offer libations to this unique Ba.(Headdress glyph:
Ga po bi ta po ga, "The habitation is pure, the great ancestor/or lineage has propriety, (indeed) a pure habitation" (after this sign we see the Su ba su sign repeated.)
3. Pe Se su ba su, "Pe to realize in this house the offering of
libations (for) his Ba, offer libations"
4. Se tu ni Se, "To realize this very good abode--merit
be fo li, Lay low (the celebrity) cause (him to) rest
Su ba su, Give libations (for) the Ba, offer the libations.
5. Yo kele nde. Pa fe yo. Su ba kele su. The vital spirit is unique indeed. Very much admiration the desire of this spirit. Give libations (for) this unique Ba! Give libations.
Other Olmec signs at Cerros include:
Tu fa ta su sign.
It means in Olmec"This abode possessed by the Partisan (of the Mystic order) offer libations". This sign is related to other Olmec symbolism from sites in Mayaland including Kaminaljuyu and Izapa. The signs from these sites is formed by three signs.
The sign is formed by the following signs:
It means "This abode the possession of a celebrity laid low (here).
An understanding of the Olmec writing allows us to read the obituary in chamber burial 48 of Tikal, Structure 5D-33-2nd; and the Rio Azul inscription. An examination of these inscriptions will show that the glyphs on lines 1,2,3, and 8(a) agree with similar signs on the Tikal inscriptions.
In figure , I illustrate how you can read Maya inscriptions using the phonetic approach, based on interpreting the sound value based on the Olmec-Manding sign, but read in the Yucatec language.
The sign ah po or ahau, is a good example of the use of Olmec symbols to write Mayan words. this sign which Schele and Freidel interpret as: is made up of three Olmec signs Tu tu and po. These signs mean Tu tu "the ruler that rules" and Po 'pure'
i.e., 'Pure ruler that rules'.
Up until 1995, there were only a few published Olmec inscriptions (Winters, 1979). Today there are many Olmec inscriptions published in Jill Gutherie (1995) catalogue for the exhibition "The Olmec World: Ritual and Rulership", organized by the Art Museum of Princeton University.
The publication of the artifacts in the "The Olmec World" exhibition provide numerous new inscriptions to decipher. At the 74th Annual Meeting of the Central States Anthropological Society meeting in Milwaukee, Winters (1997) presented for the first time many of the latest decipherments of Olmec and Epi Olmec inscriptions .
There are over 250 Olmec art objects made of ceramic, jade and stone that made up the Princeton University exhibition. Twenty-seven of these art objects bear Olmec signs and symbols. These symbols signify entry into the Olmec culture and spiritual world.
The Olmec inscriptions record the names and deeds of many political officials, religious leaders and Kings (Winters, 1997). The Olmec inscriptions indicate that each Olmec town was ruled by either a governor or King, and that their was a recognized religious leader for the entire community (Winters, 1997).
The Olmec King was usually referred to as Tu. The Olmec term for governor was Ku. Interestingly, some of the Olmec rulers were referred to as the Ku and Tu. This may suggest that the Olmec civilization may have been organized into a confederation of city-states lead by a recognized emperor .
The Olmec emperor may have appointed the local government heads or Ku (governors). The fact that some Olmec rulers referred to themselves as Ku Tu, or both governor and King may reflect the Olmec Emperor's appointment of conquered Kings as governors over Olmec cities they formerly mastered as a result of divine right.
One the most interesting Olmec historical documents is the Mask from Rio Pesquero Veracruz.
Bada of Rio Pesquero
According to the inscriptions on the mask, it was worn by Bada, who was recognized as the local Ku and chief La (leader of the stone mason's caste) (Gutherie, 1995: 268, illustration No.186).
Between 900-600 BC one of the major rulers at Guerrero was Po Ngbe (Gutherie, 1995: 231, illustration No.127).
Po Ngbe Royal Celt
There is also an important tablet from Ahuelican, Guerrero of mottled green stone that also mentions King Po Ngbe, and his building of a great temple at his site.
Ahuelican Stone of the Po Ngbe Temple
One of the most interesting political elites of the Olmec was Bu. Bu is the kneeling figure from Veracruz, known as the "Shaman in Transformation" (Gutherie, 1995: 169-170).
In reading the inscription on the head of this figure, we discover that Bu was a member of the stone mason caste, who later became governor of Veracruz.
The major Epi-Olmec inscriptions have also been deciphered (Winters, 1997). Two of the longest Epi-Olmec inscriptions come from Tuxtla and Mojarra. The Epi-Olmec inscriptions record calendrical dates, in addition to important information on the reigns of Governor TuTu at Tuxtla, and King Yo Pe of Mojarra.
Emperor Yo Pe
Yo Pe was born on 21 May 143 AD, he was recognized as the ruler of Mojarra and also the Se Gyo (religious leader with considerable wonder making ability). Other Epi-Olmec rulers include Ki, who was buried in tomb 1, at Rio Azul in Guatemala, and King Kele, the ruler buried at Tikal, beneath Structure 5D 33-2nd.King Kele Obituary from Tikal
In summary the Native American traditions make it clear that they were not the first people to inhabit the area associated with Olmec archaeology. The settlers of thes area were probably Manding people from West/ Northwest Africa. These Manding speaking people came to Mexico in twelve waves of immigrants around 1200 B.C. This tradition is recorded in Stela No.5 from Izapa.
The Manding speaking ancestors of the Olmecs came from the Saharan zone of North Africa (Winters, 1983, 1984c, 1986). Here the Proto-Olmecs left their earliest inscriptions at Oued Mertoutek (Winters, 1979,1983). They took a full fledged literate culture to Mexico.
This view is supported both by 1) our ability to read the Olmec inscriptions; 2) confirmation that the Mayan term for writing *c'ib, is of Manding origin; and 3) the symbols for Mayan writing are cognate to the Manding writing systems used in Africa. Moreover, the evidence presented in this paper makes it clear that the people who introduced writing to the Maya when they met at Nonoulco, may have been Manding speaking Olmecs.
La Vanta Offering No.4
Discovery at Olmec sites such as LaVenta Offering No.4 , of Manding writing provide the "absolute proof " of African and Olmec contact. The presence of readable African writing on Olmec celts, masks and statues, is the genuine African artifact found "in controlled excavations in the New World" that confirms the Afrocentric claim of ancient African and Olmec contact.
The existence of African writing on Olmec artifacts is confirmation of the African influence among the Olmecs (Winters, 1979, 1997). It is an historical fact that fails minimizes the role of Native Americans as actors in their own history, because the Africanized Olmec people had their own civilization, while the Aztecs and Mayas had theirs. This Afrocentric view of ancient American history instead of denigrating Native Americans acknowledges the truth, that all three civilizations made their own unique contributions to the great ancient history of Meso-America.
We must conclude that the Mayan term for writing was derived from the Olmec people who introduced writing to the Maya when they met at Nonoulco. These Manding speaking people came to Mexico in twelve waves of immigrants around 1200 B.C.In conclusion the ancestors of the Olmec came from the Saharan zone of North Africa (Winters, 1986). Here the Proto-Olmecs left their earliest inscriptions at Oued Mertoutek (Winters, 1979,1983). They took a full fledged culture to Mexico.
The Olmec people had both a syllabic and hieroglyphic script. The terms in this writing are monosyllabic and each term may have multiple meanings. The Olmec terms have been interpreted using the Manding lexical items recorded by Delafosse, in La Langue Mandigue et ses dialectes.
The Olmec inscriptions on portable items such as incised celts and scepters were sacred relics, containing the obituaries of great rulers, talismanic messages, or symbols of authority. These inscriptions indicate that the Olmec or Xi people were very religious and that the tombs and graves of Xi dignitaries served both as a talisman, and shrine for the common people.
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