National Geographic : 1989 Oct
D Dots and dashes: aSeptember day 2,000 years ago To Mesoamerican scholars, the date is as clear as today's calendar: September 2, 32 B.C. That's what the carved dots (for ones) and dashes (for fives) spell out on this 1.5-meter '' (five-foot) fragmented section- W of a stela found near Tres Zapotes, a small village in the Mexican state of Vera Cruz. No one knows for certain who carved the date, one of the two oldest known in the Western Hemisphere. The other, found in nearby Chiapas state, is four years older. Nor is it known why the monument, Stela C, was created. Perhaps it marked a conquest or the inauguration of a ruler. The bottom portion was found by Dr. Matthew W. Stirling on a 1939 National Geographic Society Smithsonian Institution expedition; the top part turned up nearby in 1972. Both fragments are now in Mexico City's National Museum of Anthropology. Who were the people who carved it? "We don't know for sure," says Dr. George E. Stuart, National Geographic staff archaeologist. "The date falls late in the Preclassic period, an exciting time when great civilizations, such as the Maya, were forming. The area was earlier inhabited by the Olmec. Stela C reflects a complicated calendar and writing; it may be a bridge between the Olmec and the Maya, but little is known about this region archaeologically." Scholars have been working on Mesoamerican writing and calendar systems for more than a hundred years. By 1900 Ernst Forstemann, head librarian of the Royal Public Library at Dresden, had-in 14 years of spare-time effort figured out the Maya calendar. Virtually all dates, he realized, were counted from a single starting point, equatable to our own August 12, 3114 B.C. Expeditions sponsored by the Society and reported in NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC have been instrumental in helping dispel the mystery that once shrouded the Maya and their precursors.