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A rollout of the San Andrés cylinder seal, showing the bird "speaking" the name "3 Ajaw"
San Andrés is an Olmec archaeological site in the present-day Mexican state of Tabascomarker. Located 5 km northeast of the Olmec ceremonial center of La Ventamarker, San Andrés is considered one of its elite satellite communities, with evidence of elite residences and other elite activities. Several important archaeological finds have been made at San Andrés, including the oldest evidence of the domesticated sunflower, and possible evidence of an Olmec writing system.


The earliest evidence of human activity at San Andrés – maize (Zea species) pollen and extensive charcoal deposits from swidden (slash-and-burn) agriculture – has been dated to roughly 5100 BCE. At that time, the Gulf of Mexicomarker was further inland and San Andrés was the site of beach ridges and barrier lagoons, features that are today some 15 km to the north.

Later evidence of human habitation includes pollen dated to 4600 BCE, seeds from 2600 BCE, and evidence of maize cultivation from 2000 BCE.
San Andrés and La Venta in the context of the Olmec heartland
The first evidence of Olmec occupation has been dated to 1350 BCE, an occupation that lasted some 150 years (until 1200 BCE), with an ensuing hiatus lasting until roughly 900 BCE. Continuously occupied over the following 550 years, San Andrés was finally abandoned some time before 350 BCE. This date coincides with the abandonment of the La Venta and the dissolution of the Olmec culture.

Early traces of domesticated plants

San Andrés is notable for the ancient pollen and seeds recovered there. Although the humid rainy tropical lowlands have made quick work of organic substances, including Olmec skeletal remains, the multi-disciplinary research team delved below the water table, hoping that the preservative nature of water-logged soil would enable them to retrieve ancient samples.

Their findings include:
  • Early maize (Zea species) pollen from as early as 5100 BCE.
  • A single manioc pollen grain dated to roughly 4600 BCE. Since manioc pollen is rare in sediments, its discovery was either "fortuitous, or abundant stands of manioc were growing close to the site".
  • A domesticated sunflower seed and fruit dated to roughly 2650 BCE and 2550 BCE respectively. This is the earliest record yet of the domesticated sunflower.
  • Cotton (Gossypium) pollen from roughly 2500 BCE. The researchers suggest that this cotton was domesticated, although wild cotton does occur naturally along the Gulf Coast to the east.

Indications of an Olmec writing system

at San Andrés in 1997 and 1998 produced three artifacts that many archaeologists contend demonstrate that the Olmec civilization used a true writing system. These artifacts, dated very roughly to 650 BCE, were found in a refuse dump, the remains from a festival or feast.

The most important find was a fist-sized ceramic cylinder seal, likely used to print cloth. When rolled out, the seal shows two speech scrolls emanating from a bird, followed directly by a number of design elements enframing what has been interpreted as logograms for "3 Ajaw", a designation used for both a calendar date and, in keeping with Mesoamerican custom, the name of an Olmec ruler.

In addition to the ceramic cylinder seal, two fingernail-sized fragments from a greenstone plaque have been recovered, each containing an incised glyph. Both these glyphs have been linked to well-documented glyphs in other Mesoamerican writing systems, including the Isthmian and Maya scripts.

Well-known archaeologist and writer Michael D. Coe interprets these glyphs as "an early kind of writing" while Richard A. Diehl, who excavated at the Olmec site of San Lorenzo Tenochtitlanmarker with Coe, finds that this discovery "establishes the existence of Olmec writing and calendrics by 650 B.C." On the other hand, Mayanist epigrapher David Stuart stated that it would be hard to discern evidence of a writing system in a handful of symbols.

Cascajal Block

The question of whether the Olmecs possessed a writing system was complicated in 2006 by the discovery of the Cascajal Block. This artifact, a slab of serpentine with 62 incised characters, has been dated to 900 BCE, although it was discovered without archaeological context. Instead of being precursors to the San Andrés glyphs, however, the 28 unique Cascajal block characters bear no obvious resemblance to them and are, indeed, unlike those of any other Mesoamerican writing system. Questions concerning the interpretation of the San Andrés glyphs (and the Cascajal block) will need to await further research.

See also

  • El Manatímarker - an Olmec archaeological site where, like San Andrés, water-logged soil also preserved organic artifacts

External links


  1. Pope.
  2. Pohl et al. (2002).
  3. Pope.
  4. Pohl et al. (2004), p. 18.
  5. Pope.
  6. Pohl, et al., p. 1984-1985.
  7. Bower.
  8. Diehl, p. 96.
  9. Bower.
  10. Skidmore, who says "[The Cascajal block script] apparently left no descendants, with no certain link to Isthmian or other Formative [period] writing.", p.5.


"Script Delivery: New World writing takes disputed turn" in Science News, Vol. 162, No. 23, Dec. 7, 2002, p. 355.
, and (2004) " Olmec Civilization at San Andres, Tabasco, Mexico", Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc. (FAMSI), accessed October 2007.
, and ; " Origin and Environmental Setting of Ancient Agriculture in the Lowlands of Mesoamerica", Science, 18 May 2001:Vol. 292. no. 5520, pp. 1370 – 1373.

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