Is the Olmec Syllabic Writing African, Chinese or Mixe
Clyde A. Winters
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 hieroglyphic 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 symbols or signs on pottery, statuettes, batons/scepters, stelas and bas reliefs that have been regarded as a possible form of writing (Coe, 1965; Gay ,1973; Popenoe and Hatch , 1971 ; Soustelle, 1984). These experts accept the view that the system of dots and bars whether associated with glyphs 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 Tuxtla statuette are engraved with calendrical information (Morell, 1991; Soustelle, 1984).
Although many Meso-Americanists accept the view that the Olmecs possessed calendrical symbols controversy 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 (until recently), on the otherhand believe that the Olmecs possessed a form of iconography but not writing (Morell, 1991).
The question is, can the Olmec decipherment claims made by some researchers be supported by the archaeological and linguistic evidence? The noted scholar Cyrus H. Gordon, in
Maurice Pope in
-Today there are three theories relating to the origin of the Olmec writing. The first theory is that the Olmec writing is an aspect of Malinke-Bambara. The other two theories maintain that the Olmec were Chinese speakers or speakers of a Mixe-Zoque language.
Justenson and Kaufman maintain that the Olmec spoke a Mixe-Zoque language. There are three problems with the Justenson and Kaufman decipherment of Epi-Olmec: 1) there is no clear evidence of Zoque speakers in Olmec areas 3200 years ago, 2) there is no such thing as a "pre-Proto-Soquean/Zoquean language, 3)there is an absence of a Zoque substratum in the Mayan languages.
First of all ,Justenson and Kaufman in their 1997 article claim that they read the Epi-Olmec inscriptions using "pre-Proto-Zoquean". This is impossible ,a "Pre-Proto" language refers to the internal reconstruction of vowel patterns, not entire words. Linguists can reconstruct a pre-Proto language , but this language is only related to internal developments within the target language.
Secondly, Justenson and Kaufman base their claim of a Zoque origin for the Olmec language on the presence of a few Zoque speakers around mount Tuxtla, this is a false principle. Most of the people in this area today speak Otomanguean languages.The Otomanguean family includes Zapotec, Mixtec and Otomi to name a few. The hypothesis that the Olmec spoke a Mixe-Zoque or Otomanguean language is not supported by the contemporary spatial distribution of the languages spoken in the Tabasco/Veracruz area.
Thomas Lee in R.J. Sharer and D. C. Grove (Eds.), Regional Perspectives on the Olmecs, New York: Cambridge University Press (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
If this linguistic evidence is correct, many of the languages spoken in this area are spoken by people who may have only recently settled in the Olmec heartland, and may not reflect the language of the people that invented the culture we call Olmec today. This makes it very unlikely that Mixe-Zoque was spoken on the Gulf 3200 years ago.
Mixe tradition also suggest that another people lived in the Olmec heartland when they arrived in the area. In "The Mixe of Oaxaca: Religion, Ritual, and Healing", by Frank J. Lipp it is noted that:
Finally, the Justenson and Kaufman hypothesis is not supported by the evidence for the origin of the Mayan term for writing. The Mayan term for writing is not related to Zoque.
Mayan tradition makes it clear that they got writing from another Meso-American group. Landa noted that the Yucatec Maya claimed that they got writing from a group of foreigners called Tutul Xiu from Nonoulco (Tozzer, 1941). Xiu is not the name for the Zoque. Brown has suggested that the Mayan term c'ib' diffused from the Cholan and nYucatecan Maya to the other Mayan speakers. This term is probably not derived from Mixe-Zoque. If the Maya had got writing from the Mixe-Zoque, the term for writing would Probably be found in a Mixe-Zoque language. The fact that there is no evidence that 1)the Zoque were in the ancient Olmec land 3200 years ago, 2)there is no Zoque substrate language in Mayan, and 3) there is no such thing as "pre-Proto-Zoque" falsifies Justenson and Kaufman hypothesis.
Michael Xu assistant professor of Chinese Studies at Texas Christian University has proposed that the Olmec people may have written in the Chinese language. He based his opinion on the alleged similarity between the Olmec writing and the Shang writing.
The Chinese wrote their inscriptions on Oracle bones. These Oracle bone inscriptions were written by the Shang people to divine the future.
This theory is fine except for the fact that the Olmec writing has little affinity to the Shang writing. Moreover some of the alleged similarities found by Xu do no relate to Shang witing at all. Below is a table of Shang symbols. A careful examination of the Shang table below and the Oracle bone inscriptions above clearly show that none of these signs are identical to the Olmec writing found on the LaVenta celt.
Cursory examination of the Shang signs depicted in this table clearly show that they do not match the alleged Shang signs identified by Xu in his article. In fact, a comparison of the actual signs on the LaVenta celt and the alleged "Shang" signs lack any agreement.
The view that Africans originated writing in America is not new. Scholars early recognized the affinity between Amerindian scripts and the Manned 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 resemblance's 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.
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.
Above is a celt discovered in the 1950's at La Venta offering no. 4. This celt illustrates the similarities between the Olmec and Mande/Vai writing systems. The famous inscribed celts of offering no.4 LaVenta, indicate both the plain and cursive syllabic Olmec scripts .
A comparison of the Olmec and Vai (Mande signs) above illustrate correspondence between the symbols. This affinity between Olmec and Mande signs supported the hypothesis of Wiener that the Tuxtla statuette was wriitten in a Mande/Malinke-Bambara language.
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.
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.
In conclusion the Olmec spoke a Mande language. They did not speak Chinese or Mixe-Zoquean. Recognition of Malinke-Bambara as the language spoken by the Olmec allow us to read the numerous inscriptions left by these early African explorers of the New World.
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Below are a Number of sites where information can be found relating to the African origin of the Olmecs
http://homepages.luc.edu/~cwinter - Clyde Winters Homepage
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