ANTIGUA, Guatemala (Reuters) -- Archaeologists 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.
The 2,300-year-old glyphs were excavated last April in San Bartolo and suggest the ancient Maya developed an advanced writing system centuries earlier than previously believed, according to an article published Thursday in the journal Science.
The glyphs date from between 200 B.C. and 300 B.C., and come from the same site in the Peten jungle of northern Guatemala where archaeologist William Saturno found the oldest murals in the Mayan world in 2001. Radiocarbon tests indicate the writing is 100 years older than the murals depicting the Mayan creation myth.
The glyphs, thin black paintings on off-white stucco, lay in a plastic tub in a laboratory in an old house in the colonial city of Antigua on Thursday as archeologists cleaned and cataloged other stones from the San Bartolo site.
Although the writing is mostly indecipherable, Saturno and his team claim one glyph could be an early version of the word "ajaw," or "ruler."
"People have long been hoping to find a carved stone monument from this period of the Maya," said Mary Miller, a Mayan art expert at Yale University.
"It turned out not to be carved in stone but instead associated with this incredible complex of early paintings," she said. "It's as if we were to find pictures of Jesus on the cross from the time when he was really alive."
The pyramids at San Bartolo were constructed over several centuries, with newer structures built over the old. Guatemalan archaeologist Boris Beltran discovered the hieroglyphic writings by accident while excavating a structure buried deep below the room housing the ancient murals.
The archaeologists say some of the glyphs are pictorial, with one resembling a hand holding either a brush or a sharp instrument to draw blood.
"We can't read this stuff because it's so early," said David Stuart of the University of Texas at Austin, who co-wrote the paper in Science with Saturno and Beltran. "It's even more exotic looking than the known Mayan glyphs."
"It's like trying to read some of the writing in medieval manuscripts or handwriting from the 1500s. Even though it is our same writing system we don't recognize it," Stuart said.
Stuart said the newly discovered script resembles text used by neighboring people during the Mayan late pre-classic and early classic periods, raising questions about the relationships between ancient Mesoamerican civilizations.
"I think the Maya participated in the invention of writing much earlier than thought," Stuart said. "As cities began in Mesoamerica around this time, writing was a part of that, just like public art and presentation of political ideology. It's all part of a package."
The Mayans dominated southeastern Mexico and much of Central America for thousands of years until the Spanish conquest 500 years ago. Their descendants still live in the region.
Saturno announced last month he had uncovered the most elaborate wall of a 2,000-year-old mural, likened to the Vatican's Sistine Chapel, at San Bartolo.
The complexity of the writing found at San Bartolo indicates that even earlier glyph examples could be uncovered in the future.
"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."
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A tourist climbs up the side of a Maya pyramid in Mexico in an undated file photo. 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. (Andrew Winning/Reuters)