Evidence #215 | July 19, 2021

Obscure Scripts

Post contributed by


Scripture Central


Previously unknown scripts have been identified from ancient Mesoamerica, some of which cannot yet be deciphered. This situation parallels the Book of Mormon’s discussion of scripts that were unreadable except through divine revelation.

Book of Mormon

On several occasions, Book of Mormon peoples encountered texts that could not be read without divine aid. Some of these involved scripts produced by the Jaredites, who had a tradition of writing and keeping records (Ether 1:1–6; 4:1; 8:9; 15:4–5, 23). During the reign of King Mosiah I, “there was a large stone brought unto him with engravings on it; and he did interpret the engravings by the gift of God” (Omni 1:15). A couple generations later, Mosiah’s grandson acquired a set of plates written in an unknown language which he translated through his divine gift of seership (Mosiah 8:11–12; 28:12–20).

Centuries later, the last Nephite scribe and prophet Moroni indicated that he and his ancestors inscribed records in a script he called reformed Egyptian. “But the Lord knoweth the things which we have written, and also that none other people knoweth our language, and because that none other people knoweth our language, therefore, he hath prepared means for the interpretation thereof” (Mormon 9:32–34).

Replica of the gold plates with reformed Egyptian characters. Image via Church News.

Some readers have wondered how an ancient script such as reformed Egyptian, which had been so important to Nephite record keepers, could leave no trace of its existence that could be identified by contemporary scholars.1 While no examples of reformed Egyptian have been identified in the Americas by archaeologists, examples of ancient undeciphered Mesoamerican scripts are known, and many scholars believe that other significant writing systems may have once existed which have not survived or can no longer be identified.

Examples of Obscure Mesoamerican Scripts

Detail showing three columns of glyphs from La Mojarra Stela 1. The two right columns are Isthmian glyphs. Image and caption info via Wikipedia. 

In addition to Mayan, it is now known that there were other Mesoamerican scripts once known throughout southern Mexico and Guatemala, some of which are poorly understood or have not yet been deciphered. According to Michael Coe, “during the Late Pre-Classic period in southern Mexico and the contiguous Maya area, there were several distinctive scripts in use among the nascent states which followed on the decline of Olmec civilization.”2 These include the Monte Alban script,3 Isthmian writing in southern Veracruz,4 and enigmatic scripts on monuments in Southern Guatemala at the sites of Abaj Takalik and Kaminaljuyu.5

“Not all precocious scripts survived into the Early Classic: Isthmian, for instance, may only have existed for less than a century and the Abaj Takalik script for a little longer. Only lowland Maya writing survived until the Spanish Conquest.”6 Mayanist Linda Schele suggested “there may in fact have been many such writing systems that for one reason or another, did not survive.”7

One reason so many written texts have not survived is due to their being primarily written on perishable materials. “Sculptures of carved wood may well have outnumbered those of stone and other materials in the Classic Maya cities, but most of these, along with other perishable objects are now gone, Nevertheless, the few surviving examples of the art show that highly accomplished artists and calligraphers worked in this medium.”8

According to one recent team of Mayanists, “the discovery of a rich inventory of wooden sculptures, at El Manati, of slightly earlier date, suggests that a dearth of texts today may be misleading. A tradition of co-eval wood-working suggests an ancient reality of abundant wooden inscriptions, of which few would survive in tropical conditions. The small number of texts in Isthmian writing, found also in Veracruz as well as into Chiapas, Mexico, proves that a robust, widely spread script could exist without leaving many examples that last to the present.”9

Olmec writing

An inscribed stone slab known as the Cascajal Block was first discovered in 1999 near the Olmec site of San Lorenzo. A significant analysis of its inscription was published in 2006 by Ma. Del Carmen Rodrigues Martinez, Ponciano Ortiz Ceballos, Michael D. Coe, Richard A. Diehl, Stephen D. Houston, Karl Taube, and Alfredo Delgado Calderon. This team of scholars concluded that the inscription dates to about 900 BC. The writing on the block is “a previously unknown script, the earliest known thus far in Mesoamerica and, by extension, the Western Hemisphere. The Cascajal block and the script on it link the Olmec to literacy, document an unsuspected writing system, and reveal a new complexity to this civilization, including the possibility of information tools not hitherto known in this early period.”10 It was “a widely spread script that disappeared before the advent of scripts across Mesoamerica in the first millennium BCE.”11

The Cascajal Block with an illustration of the script to the right. Image from the Journal of Science, accessed via nbcnews.com. 

The evidence for literacy and writing among the Olmec has surprised some scholars, many of whom did not believe the Olmec had a system of writing. “It’s a jaw-dropping find,” notes Stephen Houston. “It takes this civilization to a different level.”12 According to Richard Diehl, “It indicates the Olmecs did, in fact, use writing.”13 “Its new and further evidence,” notes Mary Pohl, “that [the Olmecs] had writing and had text.”14 Significantly, the script on the Cascajal Block represents an example of “a widespread system that died out before others appeared in succeeding centuries–perhaps as happened to one of the world’s first writing systems, the Indus script, which vanished shortly after 2000 B.C.E.”15

The case of the Olmec writing found on the Cascajal block provides an excellent example of an ancient American script that was once widespread, but for which little has survived, and which cannot be deciphered at present. The early date for this writing system is also consistent with the Book of Mormon, which indicates early literacy and writing during that same period of time.


Although no examples of ancient, reformed Egyptian have been discovered in the New World, recent discoveries and research on previously unknown Mesoamerican scripts show how an ancient American script, such as that used by Nephite scribes, could have once been widespread, and later be forgotten, undecipherable, or completely lost to history. This data also gives a meaningful context for the Jaredite script(s) that were undecipherable to the Nephites without divine aid. What was once seen as an unexplainable stumbling block for the authenticity of the Book of Mormon is now understandable in light of our growing knowledge of pre-Columbian writing systems.

John L. Sorenson, Mormon’s Codex: An Ancient American Book (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Books and the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship, 2013), 184–232.

John L. Sorenson, “The Book of Mormon as a Mesoamerican Record,” in Book of Mormon Authorship Revisited: The Evidence for Ancient Origins, ed. Noel B. Reynolds (Provo, UT: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 1997), 391–521.

John L. Sorenson, “The Book of Mormon as a Mesoamerican Codex,” Newsletter and Proceedings of the SEHA 139 (December 1976): 1–9.

Omni 1:15Mosiah 8:11–12Mosiah 28:12–20Alma 9:21Mormon 9:32–34Ether 3:22–24

Omni 1:15

Mosiah 8:11–12

Mosiah 28:12–20

Alma 9:21

Mormon 9:32–34

Ether 3:22–24

  • 1 Stan Larson, Quest for the Gold Plates: Thomas Stuart Ferguson’s Archaeological Search for the Book of Mormon (Salt Lake City, UT: Freethinker Press, 1996), 204–210, 257–264.
  • 2 Michael D. Coe and Justin Kerr, The Art of the Maya Scribe (New York, NY: Harry N. Abrams, 1998), 70.
  • 3 “The Monte Alban script, which continued in use until the end of the Classic period, has never been ‘cracked,’ and only the calendar glyphs can now be read (or at least interpreted) with any degree of confidence” Coe and Kerr, The Art of the Maya Scribe, 64.
  • 4 Coe and Kerr, The Art of the Maya Scribe, 65–66.
  • 5 Coe and Kerr, The Art of the Maya Scribe, 66–67.
  • 6 Coe and Kerr, The Art of the Maya Scribe, 70.
  • 7 “Stone Slab in Mexico Reveals Ancient Writing System,” New York Times, March 8, 1988.
  • 8 Coe and Kerr, The Art of the Maya Scribe, 136.
  • 9 Ma. Del Carmen Rodrigues Martinez, Ponciano Ortiz Ceballos, Michael D. Coe, Richard A. Diehl, Stephen D. Houston, Karl Taube, Alfredo Delgado Calderon, “Oldest Writing in the New World,” Science 313 (September 15, 2006): 1613.
  • 10 Martinez et al., “Oldest Writing in the World,” 1611.
  • 11 Martinez et al., “Oldest Writing in the World,” 1611.
  • 12 Andrew Lawler, “Claim of Oldest New World Writing Excites Archaeologists,” Science 313 (September 15, 2006):1551.
  • 13 Chris Bryant, “Oldest Writing from the New World Creates Buzz,” A News Center, University of Alabama, April 13, 2007, online at https://news.ua.edu.
  • 14 Helan Briggs, “‘Oldest’ New World Writing Found,” BBC News, September 14, 2006.
  • 15 Lawler, “Claim of Oldest New World Writing Excites Archaeologists,” 1551.
Records and Relics
Book of Mormon

© 2024 Scripture Central: A Non-Profit Organization. All rights reserved. Registered 501(c)(3). EIN: 20-5294264