New Find Pushes Back Mayan Writing Origins

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A vertical column of 10 glyphic words, uncovered last year in ruins in Guatemala, is unreadable even by the most expert scholars, but they know what it means - that Maya writing is older than they once thought.

Archaeologists reported last week that the script sample, discovered at San Bartolo, in northeastern Guatemala, is clear evidence that the Maya were writing more than 2,300 years ago. This is a few centuries earlier than previous well-dated Maya writing and 600 years before the civilization's classic period, when a decipherable writing system became widespread.

Scholars of Maya culture and other pre-Columbian societies said the discovery deepened the chronology of literacy's origins in the Americas. But they were not sure whether it brought them any closer to learning exactly when, where and how early American cultures first put words into graphic form.

"This early Maya writing," the discovery team concluded in the current issue of the journal Science,"implies that a developed Maya writing system was in use centuries earlier than previously thought, approximating a time when we see the earliest scripts elsewhere in Mesoamerica."

William A. Saturno, the team leader who is a Maya archaeologist at the University of New Hampshire and Harvard, said the study of the origins of writing in Mesoamerica, the ancient region of Mexico and parts of Central America, was now"likely to get more complicated in the near future as more early texts come to light."

Joyce Marcus, a professor at the University of Michigan and an authority on Mesoamerican cultures, said the Maya discovery"is terrific and does constitute some of the earliest Maya writing."

"Every piece of early writing enriches our knowledge of the ancient Maya," Dr. Marcus said.

As matters stand, the Zapotec, who lived around Oaxaca, Mexico, appear to have led the way to literacy, at least by 400 B.C., perhaps as early as 600 B.C. Clear evidence for Maya writing has been more recent.

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