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Ancient text.
A drawing of the hieroglyphs found at Las Pinturas.

Image © Science/Drawing by D. Stuart

Maya Writing Got Early Start

Archaeologists have discovered the earliest known examples of Maya hieroglyphs deep within a 2500-year-old temple in Guatemala. The find reveals that the Maya had a developed writing system hundreds of years earlier than previously thought and may provide insight into how written language developed throughout Mesoamerica.

The Maya civilization occupied much of southern and eastern Mesoamerica from about 4500 years ago until the Spanish conquest of Mexico in the 16th century C.E. During their so-called Classic Period from 250-800 C.E., the Maya erected huge stone monuments with carved and painted inscriptions at temples throughout the region. Because no Maya writing had been found before this period, scholars had assumed that the group borrowed the seeds of its ornate language from another Mesoamerican civilization, such as the Zapotec or Olmec, who used isolated symbols as early as 650 B.C.E.

The new find indicates the story may not be that simple. Discovered in 2005 in a pyramidal Maya structure called Las Pinturas, near San Bartolo, the text is a column of 10 hieroglyphs painted in a thick black line on white plaster. One of the characters within the glyph is recognizable as AJAW, a widely used Maya symbol for ruler or lord, says William Saturno of the University of New Hampshire in Durham, who led the expedition. Radiocarbon dates from charcoal buried within Las Pinturas indicate that the writing likely dates to between 300 and 200 B.C.E.

That places Maya writing origins closer to that of the Zapotec or Olmec, says Saturno. And that raises the likelihood that Maya writing was homegrown rather than cribbed. Moreover, he says, the characters somewhat resemble the so-called Epi-Olmec script, known from a few centuries later. So it's possible that an early Maya script gave rise to Epi-Olmec as well as classic Maya writing, he says. The other possibility is that there simply aren't large enough samples to clearly identify the style yet, the team reports 6 January in Science.

Archaeologist Joyce Marcus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor believes that the San Bartolo finding is evidence that the Classic period text style developed from an earlier Maya form, rather than other regional scripts. She predicts the discovery will spur the search for additional pieces of this ancient form of the Maya language.

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