A story by John Noble Wilford in the NY Times reports on recent discoveries that have pushed the story of Mayan civilization back a considerable ways:

On the sacred walls and inside the dark passageways of ancient ruins in Guatemala, archaeologists are making discoveries that open expanded vistas of the vibrant Maya civilization in its formative period, a time reaching back more than 1,000 years before its celebrated Classic epoch.
The intriguing finds, including art masterpieces and the earliest known Maya writing, are overturning old ideas of the Preclassic period. It was not a kind of dark age, as once thought, of a culture that emerged and bloomed in Classic times, at places like the spectacular royal ruin at Palenque beginning about A.D. 250 and extending to its mysterious collapse around 900…
Stephen Houston, of Brown, said, “We are entering a golden age of Preclassic study,” adding that the discipline of Maya research “will be marked by a time before the discovery of these paintings in the jungle of Guatemala, and a time thereafter.” Other experts have already focused new research on Preclassic ruins, some dating at least to 900 B.C., and are reinterpreting finds in light of the San Bartolo evidence.

The writing, however, still needs to be deciphered:

One new puzzle yet to be solved is the Preclassic Maya script found at San Bartolo. The column of 10 glyphs, painted in black on white plaster, is definitely Maya writing from 300 B.C. to 200 B.C., experts say, but so far it is unreadable.
Dr. Saturno, the discoverer, and colleagues reported that the writing sample “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.”
Dr. Houston, an expert in Maya glyphs at Brown, agrees, saying the sophistication of the scribe’s technique and the inventory of signs suggest that “this was not a system invented the day before.” How long before, a few generations or centuries, he added, is not known in the absence of further evidence, but its origins could be contemporaneous with Zapotec writing in Oaxaca, Mexico, or some symbolic systems of the Olmec along the Gulf Coast.
The origin of writing in Mesoamerica, the area of southern Mexico and parts of Central America, is a contentious issue. Zapotec scholars say writing started first in Oaxaca as early as 600 B.C. and spread into Maya territory to the south. But if it did, the San Bartolo glyphs show the time gap is closing.

Of course, I look forward to hearing from readers with inside information on this stuff; all I know is what I read in the papers.
Meanwhile, Lameen Souag of Jabal al-Lughat has discovered an Amnesty International press release (“Watemaal: Li risinkileb’ laj nat’ol na’ajej moko a’an ta li xb’ehil re xtuqub’alkil ru li ch’a’ajkilal chi rix li ch’och’”) in a Mayan language! Pretty neat, though (as Lameen says) somewhat self-defeating.


  1. Extremely cool. If something like this can randomly push Maya civilization 1000 years further back, you’ve got to wonder what else is there – were the Olmecs only the Akkadians of Mesoamerica, rather than its Sumerians? (So to speak.) Mayan is a pretty well reconstructed language family – I wonder whether this will dramatically confirm (or confound?) any historical linguists’ predictions. It would be nice to have another example of successful prediction through the comparative method to add to Hittite.

  2. Yes indeed!

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