Early Maya writing

Archaeologists have found the earliest known example of Maya writing.

More than 2,000 years ago, a Maya scribe painted a pattern of thick black lines on a pyramid wall. Over centuries, these hieroglyphs disappeared from view as people took apart the wall and built bigger pyramids on top of the original structure.

Now, archaeologists tunneling deep in the ruins of a pyramid in Guatemala have discovered bits of the scribe’s writing. The text dates to between 300 B.C. and 200 B.C. It’s the earliest known example of Maya writing, the researchers say.


Painted hieroglyphs were found on a stone block buried in an ancient Maya temple in Guatemala.


© Science/Photograph by B. Beltrán

The hieroglyphs were originally part of a richly decorated room painted with colorful murals, the researchers say. The ancient Maya even painted a picture of their maize god on one of the doorjambs.

The hieroglyphic signs could have a religious meaning, but the archaeologists can’t be sure. The writing is so old that most of it is unrecognizable. One sign that the archaeologists can understand is an early version of the word for lord, noble, or ruler. The sign, pronounced “ajaw,” is probably part of a title.


This ancient Maya hieroglyph is probably an early version of the word for lord, noble, or ruler.


© Science/Drawing by D. Stuart

Another sign looks similar to a hand holding a brush or a sharp tool, the archeologists say. Perhaps the picture provides a clue to the hieroglyph’s meaning.


This mysterious hieroglyph resembles a hand holding a brush or a sharp tool.


© Science/Drawing by D. Stuart

The archaeologists found helpful clues about the age of the hieroglyphs from nearby pieces of burned wood. By comparing the amounts of different forms of carbon in a sample, researchers calculated the wood’s age. This is a process called radiocarbon dating. Once they knew how old the wood was, they estimated the age of the writing sample.

Before archaeologists found these hieroglyphs in San Bartolo, the oldest known examples of Maya writing were from between 100 B.C. and 100 A.D. The new discovery bumps back the date a few centuries.

It appears that the Maya were creating a writing system and painting hieroglyphs at the same time as other cultures to the north in Mexico.—K. Ramsayer

Going Deeper:

Bower, Bruce. 2006. Getting a read on early Maya writing. Science News 169(Jan. 21):45. Available at http://www.sciencenews.org/articles/20060121/note11.asp .

You can learn more about Maya writing at www.famsi.org/mayawriting/ (Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies) and www.civilization.ca/civil/maya/mmc04eng.html (Canadian Museum of Civilization).

Sohn, Emily. 2005. Stone tablet may solve Maya mystery. Science News for Kids (Oct. 12). Available at http://www.sciencenewsforkids.org/articles/20051012/Note2.asp .

Turck, Mary C. 2004. Maya math. In Mexico and Central America: A Fiesta of Cultures, Crafts, and Activities for Ages 8–12. Chicago: Chicago Review Press. Available at http://www.sciencenewsforkids.org/articles/20050119/LZActivity.asp .

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