In 1902, an Indigenous man plowing a field near the Tuxtla Mountains in the state of Veracruz, Mexico, unearthed a green stone the size of a large mango—a piece of jadeite with carvings depicting a stout human figure with a shamanic bird’s bill. Along its sides was a set of hieroglyphs.
Before long, the Tuxtla Statuette (as it became known) made its way to the United States, and in 1903 to the Smithsonian. At first, archaeologists thought the statuette’s markings were Mayan; southern Mexico rests within the heart of the Mayan civilization, where Mayan dialects are still spoken today. But one observer felt unsure. Charles Pickering Bowditch—a Boston businessman, philanthropist and scholar of Mesoamerica who served on the faculty at Harvard’s Peabody Museum—compared the hieroglyphs with a card catalog he had assembled of all the Mayan characters then available. “I cannot find any real likeness between the two kinds of glyphs,” he wrote in 1907. Bowditch argued that the statuette carried an unknown indigenous language—one with no clear relative. In the 1960s, scholars hypothesized that it was “epi-Olmec,” a late language of the Olmec people, the most ancient known Mesoamerican civilization, which predated the height of Mayan civilization by about 1,000 years. This hypothesis is still subject to debate.
In 1993, John Justeson and Terrence Kaufman, both linguists, offered a possible solution to the mystery. Aided by the handful of objects with the same script unearthed since Bowditch’s day, they put forward a translation—the first modern reading, they said, of epi-Olmec. Further, Justeson and Kaufman’s translation of the glyphs seemed to reveal the statuette’s age. Chemical dating was not helpful; sampling the object’s substrate would simply give the age of the stone, not of the carvings. The two scholars held that the writing, in its entirety, gives a year in epi-Olmec—specifically A.D. 162, dating it to the middle period of epi-Olmec society.
Read more: Smithsonian