| 7 January 2006
Earliest Mayan writing found in pyramid
Archeologists excavating a pyramid complex in the Guatemalan jungle have uncovered the earliest example of Mayan writing ever found, 10 bold hieroglyphs painted on plaster and stone. Newly discovered hieroglyphs show that the Maya were writing at a complex level 150 years earlier than previously thought. The glyphs, which date to about 250 BCE, were found on preserved painted walls and plaster fragments in the pyramidal structure known as Las Pinturas, in San Bartolo, Guatemala. Las Pinturas also yielded the previously oldest samples of Mayan writing, dating back to 100 BCE.
These new glyphs are much more complex, project leader William Saturno of the University of New Hampshire said. "This is a full-blown and fully developed script," Saturno said. "Which is not to say that the Maya invented writing and not the Zapotec, but it does lead us to question the origins and the complexities of these origins." One thing seems certain: The Mayan style was not influenced by the Zapotecs. "It's not similar at all to Zapotec," Saturno said.
A common problem with dating Mayan writing is that it is often on stone, which scientists can't accurately date using radiocarbon dating. Instead, they must use stylistic changes to date materials. However, Saturno and his team found these writings in a pyramid made in part with wood, which is carbon-based and can be dated with radiocarbon techniques. "The way the Maya built pyramids is by building one layer on top of another," Saturno said. "We have [the building where the writing was found] sandwiched between two other buildings. We can get a date from the building itself, but also a range from the other two."
Taken together, these samples imply that the text was painted between 300 and 200 BCE. But it's likely that Mayan writing goes back a lot further, Saturno said.
The glyphs, thin black paintings on off-white stucco, lay in a laboratory in an old house in the colonial city of Antigua. While the writing is mostly indecipherable, Saturno and his team claim one glyph could be an early version of the word "ajaw" or "ruler." The earliest writing in the region dates as far back as 600 BCE and was found in Mexico's Oaxaca valley, said Saturno, although that date is still debated by scholars. "The history of the origins of Mesoamerican writing are not resolved by this find," Saturno said. But the recent discoveries in Guatemala clearly show "that the full story has not yet been told."
Sources: MSNBC, Reuters, Yahoo! News (5 January 2006), Telegraph (7 January 2006)
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