Getting a read on early Maya writing

Researchers excavating the ruins of an ancient pyramid in northeastern Guatemala have discovered examples of the earliest known Maya writing, produced between 300 B.C. and 200 B.C.

The discovery shows that the Maya developed a writing system at around the same time as script emerged in ancient societies of what is now Mexico, say William A. Saturno of the University of New Hampshire in Durham and his colleagues.

Saturno’s team found hieroglyphic symbols on painted walls and plaster fragments buried inside the remains of a pyramid at a Maya site called San Bartolo. Dating relied on radiocarbon measurements of bits of burned wood buried with the script samples.

Much of the writing is difficult to decipher, the investigators report in the March 3 Science. They regard one hieroglyphic symbol at San Bartolo as an early version of a Maya sign meaning lord, noble, or ruler.

Until now, the first fully legible Maya writing dated to around A.D. 250. However, preliminary studies by independent teams suggest that inscriptions carved in stone monuments at two other Maya sites were made between 300 B.C. and 100 B.C.

Bruce Bower

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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