Earliest Maya Writing Found in Guatemala, Researchers Say

Nicholas Bakalar
for National Geographic News
January 5, 2006
Evidence of Maya writing that dates to 2,300 years ago has turned up in a pyramidal structure in Guatemala.

Researchers excavating the site—ruins at San Bartolo in the northeastern part of the country—say the finding could be among the earliest Maya written material ever found.

Currently the oldest known writing system in all of Central and South America dates to about 400 B.C. and is from cultures based in what is now Oaxaca, Mexico.

But William Saturno, the lead researcher reporting the find, points out that this "largely depends on what your definition of writing is—that is, the very first symbols, the first calendric signs, the first full-blown text, et cetera."

Saturno, an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of New Hampshire, and colleagues describe the Maya hieroglyphs in today's Science Express, the online advance version of the research journal Science. Their research at the San Bartolo site is partially funded by the National Geographic Society.

"The story of script invention in Mesoamerica is likely to get more and more complicated in the near future as more early texts from excavations in the Maya area come to light," Saturno said.

An Unusual Find

The ruins, which were discovered in 2001, consist of several buildings constructed at different times. In April 2005 Saturno was working in one part of the site while his colleague Boris Beltrán, of the University of San Carlos in Guatemala, worked in another, older section of the excavation.

"We're in a room built around 100 B.C. working on some murals," Saturno recalled, "and Boris was in a tunnel far deeper in the pyramid, going back further in time—about four construction phases earlier than where the murals are."

Beltrán was working on defining the shapes and dimensions of the entire structure so he could see how the complex grew over time.

"One day Boris turns up some painting," Saturno said, "and he says, You should come back here. And I thought, Yeah, sure Boris—it had become a running joke, because we kept finding fragments of mural everywhere."

"So I walked back into this tunnel, climbed the stairway on the back side of the building he's been excavating, and I look. And he's there with a big block with a painting of the [Maya] maize god on it [from] a couple of hundred years earlier than what we've been looking at.

"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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