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Ancient Mayan writing
5 January 2006

Researchers have found the oldest Mayan writing ever conclusively dated. This week in Science magazine, William Saturno and colleagues describe a plastered stone with Mayan hieroglyphs -- symbol writing -- from a Mayan ruin at San Bartolo, Guatemala.

Writing was invented in Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, and Mesoamerica, if not elsewhere. The earliest Mesoamerican writing, from Mexico's Oaxaca Valley, is a single symbol dated to 600 BC. Now, San Bartolo has supplied writing that positively dates to 200 to 300 BC.
stone with inscriptions, each about 4 centimeters wide

This stone inscription provides evidence for early writing from the Mayan people of Central America. Photo: ©Science, photo by B. Beltrán

Ancient Mayan writing is common, but tough to date, says Saturno, a professor of anthropology at the University of New Hampshire, since most is written on stone, which cannot be carbon-dated (carbon dating measures carbon isotopes, which change through radioactive decay). And although stone seems permanent, he says,ornate, flowing symbols are stacked in a column inscribed stones "are quite portable, so you may have monuments ... that were carved in 400 AD, then re-carved in 700 and buried in 800, and although we have a lot of dates on them, it's impossible to be sure of the earliest date."

The stone in question was dated by its surroundings, which contained organic material that could be carbon-dated. Evidence from the site indicates that the inscription is as old as its surroundings, reducing another source of error.

Ten hieroglyphics from Mayan ruins in Guatemala. #7 means "king, lord, but most of the others are unknown. #2 could show a hand holding a quill -- or a bloodletting instrument.© Science, drawing by David Stuart, University of Texas

What's it mean?
Although the date may be clear, the meaning of the inscription is murky, Saturno said. One symbol is tellingly similar to later hieroglyphs for "lord," "noble," or "ruler," he says, but its "overall meaning we know has evolved through time," Saturno says. Eventually, the glyph's meaning had diluted from "lord," "noble," or "ruler" to "noble," in an early example of title inflation.

So what would you make of a column of hieroglyphs if you can read only the symbol for king? "You would say, this is a text about kings, unless the word before 'king' is burger, and then you are talking about fast food, and don't know it," says Saturno. Still, while the text is opaque at this point, "we will find others" that help to unravel the meaning. "There is no way this is the first text ever painted, it maintains that beautiful line width, and the beauty it is painted with shows that the script has been in existence for some time."

old-looking map of yucatan, San Bartolo located in norther eastern corner of guatemala

Searching for significance
And that raises the second question: Where did the Mayan script originate? Archeologists have credited the Oaxacans with inventing writing in the Western Hemisphere (Mesopotamia, now Iraq, and Egypt had separate writing systems by 3000 BC), and assumed that it spread to the Mayans. But finding well-developed Mayan writing around 200 BC undermines this idea. "That seems to me to be unlikely," says Saturno, "and the earlier we find a complex script in the Maya lowlands, the less likely that seems."

Archeologists, after all, usually find common things, seldom the "oldest" or the "first" of anything. Adopting a statistical metaphor, Saturno says, "I am of the assumption that what I find is in the thick part of the bell curve."

So the San Bartolo discovery probably does not represent the earliest Mayan writing, even though it's 2,200 years old. "It's very unlikely that this was THE spot where Maya writing was invented," Saturno says. "This is great, this is early, it's unlike any other piece that has been found in Mayan ruins to date, but I assume many more will be found, and some will be earlier, unless the first Mayan to write lived in San Bartolo, and was expert at it the first time he did it."

-- David Tenenbaum

Early Maya Writing at San Bartolo, Guatemala, William Saturno et al, Science, 6 Jan. 2006.

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