William A. Saturno, David Stuart and Boris Beltran have discovered the earliest known examples of Maya hieroglyphs deep within a 2500 year old temple -a pyramidal structure known as “Las Pinturas”- in the ruins of San Bartolo, Guatemala.

The writings appears on preserved painted walls and plaster fragments. The main test is a column of 10 hierogliphs painted in 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.

Samples of carbonized wood that are closely associated with the writing have calibrated radiocarbon dates of 200 to 300 B.C. It means the Late Pre-Classic Period.

The Maya civilization occupied much of southern and eastern Mesoamerica from about 4500 years ago until the Spanish conquest of Mexico in the XVI century (C.E.). During their so-called Classic Period 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. The new find tells us another story.

Joyce Marcus, an archeologist of the University of Michigan, believes that “Las Pinturas” 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.


BM&L-January 2006