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DOI: 10.1126/science.1121745
, 1281 (2006); 311Science

et al.William A. Saturno,
Early Maya Writing at San Bartolo, Guatemala

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8351 (2004).
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2002.6 suite of programs (30) were used for ab initio
calculations. The centrifugal distortion constants were
obtained by B3LYP/aug-cc-pVTZ [the Becke 3-parameter-
Lee-Yang-Parr density functional method using Dunning’s
correlation-consistent polarized triple split valence
basis set with diffuse functions (18)] of Gaussian 03.
Other ab initio calculations with SCF, B3LYP, and
RCCSD(T) (the restricted single and double excitation
coupled-cluster approach with noniterative perturbational

treatment of triple excitations) were performed using
Molpro 2002.6.

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Phys. 96, 6796 (1992).

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4
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341 (1994).

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material on Science Online.
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30. Molpro is a package of ab initio programs written by H.-J.
Werner et al.

31. This work was supported by a Grant-in-Aid for priority
research entitled ‘‘Radical Chain Reactions’’ (grant
no.13127101). K.S. acknowledges the support of the
Research Fellowships of the Japan Society for the Promotion
of Science for Young Scientists (JSPS No. 16-10895).

Supporting Online Material
www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/311/5765/1278/DC1
Materials and Methods
Tables S1 to S4
Fig. S1
References

19 December 2005; accepted 31 January 2006
10.1126/science.1124022

Early Maya Writing at
San Bartolo, Guatemala
William A. Saturno,1* David Stuart,2 Boris Beltrán3

The ruins of San Bartolo, Guatemala, contain a sample of Maya hieroglyphic writing dating to
the Late Preclassic period (400 B.C. to 200 A.D.). The writing appears on preserved painted walls
and plaster fragments buried within the pyramidal structure known as ‘‘Las Pinturas,’’ which was
constructed in discrete phases over several centuries. Samples of carbonized wood that are closely
associated with the writing have calibrated radiocarbon dates of 200 to 300 B.C. This early Maya
writing 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.

R
esearch on the origins of Maya hiero-

glyphic writing has long been hindered by

the paucity of good archaeological con-

texts and reliable dates for inscribed artifacts and

monuments. With a few exceptions, examples of

archaic Maya script appear on illicitly excavated

objects that can be stylistically dated to no earlier

than about 100 B.C. to 100 A.D., when writing

seems to have been already well established

elsewhere in Mesoamerica. Here we provide

new evidence of early Maya writing preserved

in the ruins of San Bartolo, Guatemala.

The ruins of San Bartolo, Guatemala (Fig. 1)

were identified in 2001 and include early wall

paintings buried within a pyramidal structure

today known as BLas Pinturas.[ These had been
partially exposed by illicit digging a few years

previously, and subsequent scientific excavations

in Room 1 (as that location is now designated)

have uncovered most of this important mural,

dating to È100 B.C. (1–4) (figs. S6 to S10).

Tunneling deeper into the Las Pinturas structure

has since led to the discovery of other buildings

with remains of painted decoration that are

substantially older than the Room 1 murals.

One example of this earlier painting comes

from a block from a dismantled wall of the

building that once stood on the platform of the

Sub-V construction phase (Fig. 2). The Room

1 murals were painted on the Sub-I phase of

the pyramid, that is, four construction episodes

later than the Sub-V phase. The È4-m-high

Sub-V platform extends 28 m by 12 m at its

base and supported three separate masonry

rooms. The 2005 excavations established that

its central room was richly decorated and

painted with polychrome murals. The surviving

doorjamb bears a colorful image of the Maize

God, who is a central character in the mytho-

logical scenes of the later Room 1 murals (4).

The line of script was possibly associated with

this religiously themed scenery, but its original

placement within the room is uncertain.

We obtained accelerator mass spectrometry

(AMS) radiocarbon dates on five charcoal sam-

ples from sealed deposits in the three archi-

tectural strata (Sub-VI, Sub-V, and Sub-IV) in

order to bracket the age of the painted blocks

(Fig. 3). The first of these—from within the floor

of the Sub-VI platform, the construction phase

that was encapsulated by Sub-V construction—

provides a maximum uncalibrated radiocarbon

date of 2260 T 40 years before present (years
B.P.) E400 to 200 B.C.; 2� (95% probability)

1
Department of Anthropology, University of New Hamp-
shire, Durham, NH 03824, USA. 2Department of Art and
Art History, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX 78712,
USA. 3Escuela de Historia, Universidad de San Carlos,
Guatemala City, Guatemala.

*To whom correspondence should be addressed. E-mail:
[email protected]

Fig. 1. Map. San Bartolo in relation to other Maya
archaeological sites. [Drawing by J. Kowan and W.
Saturno]

REPORTS

1281www.sciencemag.org SCIENCE VOL 311 3 MARCH 2006

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Page 3

calibrated range^ (fig. S1). A sample from within
the floor of Sub-V dates the construction of the

room at 2200 T 60 years B.P. uncalibrated E390
to 80 B.C.; 2s (95% probability) calibrated
range^ (fig. S2). The final three samples with
dates of 2260 T 40 years B.P. uncalibrated E400
to 200 B.C.; 2s (95% probability) calibrated
range^, 2180 T 40 years B.P. uncalibrated E370
to 100 B.C.; 2s (95% probability) calibrated
range^, and 2150 T 40 years B.P. uncalibrated
E360 to 60 B.C.; 2s (95% probability) calibrated
range^ (figs. S3 to S5) surround the painted
blocks and relate contextually to both the

destruction of the Sub-V painted room and

the subsequent construction of the Sub-IV

platform above it. Taken together, these samples

and those analyzed in association with the final

two phases of construction imply that the text

was painted between 300 and 200 B.C.

The painted block bears a column of 10

hieroglyphs (Fig. 4). The text appears to be the

end of a longer sequence of signs that con-

tinued above. All are painted in a thick black

line on white plaster, apparently along a subtle

pinkish-orange stripe that served as a guideline

for the scribe. As with later examples of Maya

writing discovered at San Bartolo, its decipher-

ment remains a challenge (4). Later texts from

the Room 1 murals are only partially readable,

because sign forms appear considerably differ-

ent from the familiar elements of later Maya

script. The San Bartolo Room 1 paintings date

centuries before the first fully legible Maya

writing from around 250 to 300 A.D., and the

signs of the Sub-V block are older still, con-

taining archaic forms.

The one fully recognizable glyph (pA7) is

an early version of the sign that reads AJAW,

a ubiquitous title in Maya texts that means

Blord,[ Bnoble,[ or Bruler.[ It evidently
formed part of a more extended title phase

in reference to some person, either historical or

mythical. Some signs have qualities that might

be vaguely pictorial, such as pA2 with its

suggestion of a hand holding a brush or

alternatively a sharp bloodletter. Other signs

are more abstract-looking forms, probably

ancestral to components of later Maya script.

In their overall appearance, the text bears

some resemblance to the so-called Epi-Olmec

script used by neighboring peoples to the

west during the Late Preclassic and Early

Classic periods (5, 6). All examples of that

script postdate the San Bartolo block, how-

ever, raising the question of the direction in

which any influence may have flowed.

Preclassic writing from the Maya area is

scarce and has been difficult to date accurately.

Most other examples are known from stone

monuments found in surface or near-surface

contexts or from illicitly excavated portable

objects. One notable early inscription from El

Mirador probably dates to no earlier than 100

BC on the basis of stylistic comparisons (7).

Another carved monument with glyphs from

El PortFn, Guatemala, may date to the first
two or thee centuries B.C., on the basis of a

single radiocarbon date not in direct associ-

ation with the stone (8). The newly discov-

ered San Bartolo text can now be firmly dated

to the same general period, and its fine pres-

ervation offers an unusual look at the form

that Maya script assumed in its early history.

The San Bartolo text raises the question of

the relation between Maya writing and other

early script traditions in Mesoamerica. In the

Preclassic era, writing systems were firmly

established by about 400 B.C. among complex

cultures in what is now Oaxaca and perhaps in

the Isthmus of Tehuantepec (9–12), although

the dating of evidence for this remains contro-

versial (13–15). It now appears that the Maya

also participated in the Preclassic cultures of

literacy, and at a much earlier date than pre-

viously believed.

References and Notes
1. W. Saturno, Symbols (Peabody Museum of Archaeology

and Ethnology, Harvard University, Fall 2002), p. 3.

2. W. Saturno, D. Stuart, H. Escobedo, I. Graham,
‘‘Reonocimiento Arqueológico y Conservación de San
Bartolo, Guatemala’’ (Instituto de Antropologı́a e Historia,
Guatemala City, Guatemala, 2001).

3. T. O’Neill, Natl. Geogr. Mag. 201, 70 (2002).

4. W. Saturno, K. Taube, D. Stuart, The Murals of San
Bartolo, Guatemala, Part 1, The North Wall (Publ. 7,
Ancient America, Barnardsville, NC, 2005).

5. F. Winfield Capitaine, La Estela 1 de La Mojarra, Veracruz
(Publ. 16, Research Reports on Ancient Maya Writing,
Washington, DC, 1988).

6. J. S. Justeson, T. Kaufman, Science 259, 1703 (1993).

7. R. D. Hansen, An Early Maya Text from El Mirador,
Guatemala (Research Reports on Ancient Maya Writing,
Washington, DC, 1991).

8. R. J. Sharer, D. W. Sedat, Archaeological Investigations in
the Northern Maya Highlands (University Museum, Univ.
of Pennsylvania, 1987), pp. 49–73.

9. A. Caso, Handb. Mid. Am. Indians 3, 931 (1965).

10. J. Marcus, Annu. Rev. of Anthropol. 5, 35 (1976).

11. J. Marcus, Mesoamerican Writing Systems:
Propaganda, Myth and History in Four Ancient
Civilizations (Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton,
NJ, 1992), pp. 41–42.

12. M. E. D. Pohl, K. O. Pope, C. von Nagy, Science 298,
1984 (2002).

13. R. Cahn, M. Winter, Indiana 13, 39 (1993).
14. S. D. Houston, in First Writing: Script Invention as History

and Process (Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, 2005),
p. 293.

15. K. V. Flannery, J. Marcus, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A.
100, 11801 (2003).

16. Excavations by the Proyecto San Bartolo between 2002
and 2005 were supported by grants from the National
Endowment for the Humanities (grant RZ- 50086); National
Geographic Society, Committee for Research and Exploration
(grants 7065-01, 7222-02, 7393-03, 7601-04, and

Fig. 2. Glyph block. The Sub-V painted block in
situ. [Photograph by B. Beltrán]

Fig. 3. Las Pinturas. Ar-
chitectural profile illus-
trating AMS radiocarbon
dates for the construction
sequence of the structure,
the location of the Sub-V
building phase, the painted
glyph block, and the
Room 1 mural. Scale in
meters. [Drawing by J.
Kowan and W. Saturno]

Fig. 4. Painted hiero-
glyphs. Scale drawing of
Sub-V painted glyph block.
Glyphs assigned prelim-
inary column and row
designations. Scale in cen-
timeters (pA 1 to 10).
[Drawing by D. Stuart]

REPORTS

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