Earliest Maya Writing Found in Guatemala, Researchers Say

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"And there's this text, just sitting there, and it's clear as day, so distinct from the glyphs we've seen even at 100 B.C."

The researchers did radiocarbon dating on five charcoal samples from deposits found in three layers of the site. Samples from the area where the writing was found dated to approximately 400 to 200 B.C.

Taken together with other radiocarbon dates from the site, the authors have concluded that the text was written between 300 and 200 B.C.—placing writing among the Maya much closer to the earliest known writing systems from other Mesoamerican cultures.

David Stuart, a study co-author, said, "The newly found San Bartolo text is the earliest example of Maya writing with firm, scientific dating." Stuart is a professor of Mesoamerican art at the University of Texas at Austin.

"It is also tantalizingly close to the earliest dates we have for writing in Mesoamerica as a whole, around 400 to 300 B.C. in Oaxaca. The find simply suggests that the Maya had writing about as early as anyone else in Mesoamerica."

What Does the Writing Say?

There are ten hieroglyphs on the column, and the writing appears to be the end of a text that began above it. Whoever wrote the text was very careful: The scribe first painted a thin pinkish-orange outline before laying on a thick black line.

The meaning, the authors report, as with all Mayan writing, is difficult to decipher. There is one character that clearly means "lord" or "ruler" that probably was part of a phrase referring to a specific person or mythological character.

Otherwise the writing consists of abstract shapes. While the exact meaning remains obscure, the scientists believe the text provides a look at the form Maya writing took in its earliest stages.

What the find means for the history of writing in all of Mesoamerica is not yet clear, but experts are intrigued.

"Every early find of Maya writing is important, and this is very exciting," said Joyce Marcus, professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan. "There will be tremendous interest."

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