Sample History Essay on Ancient Mayan Writing

Ancient Mayan Writing

In the prehistoric world, several civilizations developed various forms of communication which gradually developed and coalesced over the years to form distinct languages. In pre-Colombian America, the Maya people developed one of the most sophisticated languages accompanied by a salient script that enabled their seamless communication and writing. The ancient Maya, just like their contemporary civilizations in China, Egypt, and Mesopotamia, developed a basic writing system, originally based on crude pictorial diagrams, which currently enables modern historians to better understand the nitty-gritty of prehistory Mesoamerica. The highly successful Mayan civilization crumbled and with it the development of Mayan writing in the 16th century, after the colonization of the Americas by the Spanish conquistadors. The ancient Mayan writing system, though quite similar to the ancient Chinese writing script, developed from a pictorial system into a glyphic form of writing to become the leading script in prehistoric Mesoamerica.

Development and Characteristics

The ancient Mayan system of writing, also known as the Mayan script, was not the first form of writing to be developed in Mesoamerica. Archeologists and historians believe that the Mayan writing system was based on the Olmec hieroglyphic writing system which coalesced during the last century of the second millennium BC (Houston 278). The Olmec hieroglyphics was a closed writing system based purely on literal images, known as pictographs. Closed writing systems are those with long linear texts and many pictorial signs that mirror back to objects of the society in which the script is being used (Stuart and Houston 87; Houston 276). The Mayan script developed and coalesced in the second half of the Middle Pre-classic period ranging from 250-300 BCE (Cartwright 2). Though heavily based on the Olmec hieroglyphics, by A.D 700 which represents the Zenith of Maya culture, the Mayan script had evolved into an extensive and sophisticated writing system in Mesoamerica (Saturno et al. 1281). The ancient writing system of the Maya collapsed after the conquest of present-day South America by the Spanish in the mid-16th century.

The Mayan writing system was based on several building blocks and possessed numerous divergent features. The ancient Mayan script was based on hieroglyphics which was a collection of several pictorial diagrams or signs (Robertson et al. 58). The glyphics, which majorly took the form of squares or elongated ovals, formed the basic building blocks of Maya’s writing. The glyph being the basic unit in the writing system is irreducible with a distinct meaning or sound (Stuart and Houston 85). According to archeologist and historian David Stuart, in the ancient Mayan script two or more glyphics can be arranged together to form a glyph block or compound (Houston 1249). The compound helps to segment a text into neat blocks and also to space sentences. The Mayan script also had affixes, main signs, and compounds, which were defined by size and shape (Stuart and Houston 84). The affixes acted as an ideograph to communicate an idea and were enclosed by a cartouche. The cartouche also played an essential role in the calendar of the Maya as it helped to enclose day signs.

The writing system of the Maya also encompassed a numbering system that closely resembled those of other ancient civilizations such as Egypt and Mesopotamia. The Mayan numbering system was based on logographs which are a series of dots and bars for denoting numeric (Fash 183). The Mayan numbering system unlike the modern decimal system is vigesimal emphasizing twenty and its multiples (Houston 43). Archeologist David Stuart, also opine that the numbering system of the Maya people embraced the zero numerical concepts which was denoted by a glyphic with three lobes (Stuart and Houston 85). Modern historians hold that the Mayan scribes were highly skilled in the depiction of large numbers as seen in their calendar which had 365 days (Fash 185). The Mayan numbering system enabled the development of the Mayan calendar that facilitated farming during the zenith of the Mayan civilization.

The Mayan script and numbering system served several functions not only in the Maya enclave but in several parts of Mesoamerica. The writing system of the Maya people enabled the documentation of huge volumes of trade-making trade between the Mayans and their neighboring communities (Fash 187). The Mayan numbering system laid the basis for the establishment of the Mayan calendar that revolutionized farming in the Mayan Kingdom. Through farming, the Maya were able to build their armies and expand their territory in Mesoamerica as they annexed their weaker neighbors (Fash 187). The Mayan writing system also reflects on the social stratification that dominated the Mayan civilization. Most of the excavated and deciphered Mayan scripts, only depict kings and nobility and their various achievements. This confirms the fact that writing among the Maya was a preserve of the rich and few elites who could hire scribes.


The Mayan writing system developed and collapsed in prehistoric times. Therefore, this means that large swathes of the Mayan script were undocumented and remain difficult to access. The bulk of the Mayan script was written on bark paper covered with jaguar skin with a few of them being painted on ceramics and other portable objects (Stuart and Houston 83). The Spanish conquest of Mesoamerica, which is characterized by violence and brutality, resulted in the destruction of several key sources of the Mayan writing system (Houston, 39). Archeological excavations are the main source of generating authentic pre-historic Mayan scripts. Currently, there are only four surviving bark-paper books that can be traced directly to the Mayan civilization and they are housed in museums in Paris, Madrid, Dresden, and Mexico City (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica). All of the surviving Mayan texts, also known as codices, are written in black and red ink with the most famous being the Dresden Codex located in an anthropology museum in Dresden.

Pottery and elements of Mayan architectural sculpture are also quite significant in the development of divergent sources of the Mayan writing system. According to archeologist David Stuart, numerous clay vessels and instruments containing painted or inscribed writings by prehistoric Mayan scribes remain unexcavated (Stuart and Houston 82). Through excavation, these vessels can be deciphered by Mayan scholars and used to widen the existing knowledge of the Mayan writing system. A good example of the importance of architectural sculpture and pottery in the study of the Mayan script can be derived from the plethora of information gained from already excavated sculptures and vessels such as the: INSCRIBED STELA, CACAO POT, and AGUATECA STELA 2 (Robertson et al. 65; Stuart and Houston 86). Excavated in the Mayan enclave, these vessels and architectural inscriptions have provided invaluable information not only on the Mayan civilization but also on the writing system of the Maya.

Comparison with Ancient Chinese Writing System

Several similarities cut across both the Mayan and the Chinese writing systems. First, both the ancient Chinese and Maya writing systems are based on glyphics as their basic building blocks. Both Chinese and Maya writing systems being ancient are based on pictograms that are mainly built around common features of each divergent community (Boltz 423). Secondly, both the ancient Chinese and Maya writing systems utilized the cartouche that mainly enclosed signs or numbers to distinguish them from others. There are also similarities with regard to the reading order of both the Chinese and Mayan writing systems. According to archeologists David Stuart and Stephen Houston, in both systems, the reading was done from top to bottom and left to right (Stuart and Houston, 87). Lastly, both ancient forms of writing were a preserve of the nobility and the rich in China and among the Maya. This was largely due to the scarcity of scribes due to the complex nature of the writing systems and only the wealthy and powerful could enjoy both the Chinese and Mayan writing systems.

Regardless of the several similarities between the two systems, the ancient Chinese and Mayan writing systems are characterized by several differences. First, in the ancient Chinese writing systems, glyphics are enclosed by rectangular cartouches. This is different in the Mayan script where cartouches, square in shape, are mainly used to enclose logographs which are the building blocks of the Mayan number systems (Houston 1250). Secondly, the ancient Chinese inscriptions are mainly straightforward, brief, and without exceptions specify the name of individual scribes (Boltz 427). The Mayan script on the other hand is inundated with ambiguities largely due to the overlapping meanings of the glyphics (Houston, 47). Moreover, among the Mayans scribes did not normally specify their names on their inscriptions.

Language and the writing system of a community enable historians and archeologists to thoroughly analyze socio-economic and political development within a societal setting. The discovery and analysis of the ancient Mayan writing system have enabled modern historians to develop a continuum of knowledge on prehistoric Mayan culture and civilization. Moreover, it has also enabled for the comparative analysis of the Mayan script with the ancient Chinese writing system and their development. More excavation needs to be done in the Mayan enclave so as to enable the expansion of the Mayan script which remains inconclusive.

Works Cited

Boltz, William G. “Early Chinese writing.” World Archaeology 17.3 (1986): 420-436.,

Cartwright, Mark. “Maya Writing.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, Ancient History Encyclopedia, 30 May 2020,

Fash, William L. “Changing perspectives on Maya civilization.” Annual review of anthropology 23.1 (1994): 181-208.

Houston, Stephen D. “An example of preclassic Mayan writing?” Science 311.5765 (2006): 1249-1250.

Houston, Stephen D. “Writing in early Mesoamerica.” The first writing: Script invention as history and process (2004): 274-309.

Houston, Stephen D. Maya glyphs. Vol. 7. Univ of California Press, 1989.

Robertson, John, et al. “Universals and the logic of the material implication: A case study from Maya hieroglyphic writing.” (2007).,

Saturno, William A., David Stuart, and Boris Beltrán. “Early Maya Writing at San Bartolo, Guatemala.” Science 311.5765 (2006): 1281-1283.

Stuart, David, and Stephen D. Houston. “Maya writing.” Scientific American 261.2 (1989): 82-89.,

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Mayan Hieroglyphic Writing.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 21 Feb. 2007,