Writing was invented at least three times: Sumerians in Mesopotamia around 3,200 BC. Chinese, around 1200 BC and Maya in Central America around 500 BC
The Chinese system remains in use practically unchanged. Sumerian cuneiform was forgotten and rediscovered in the 19th century, although it had produced most of the current alphabets.
The Maya civilization developed from 2,000 BC. It reached its peak between 250 and 900. When the Spaniards arrived (early 16th century) their script was still understood by some descendants, but colonization accelerated the decline. Only four “books” survived the purges of the religious authorities, who saw the manifestation of the devil in the magnificent Mayan glyphs (symbols) so that no one could read them.
As with most ancient languages, the first part of deciphered Mayan writing in the 19th century consisted of numbers and the calendar. The Maya discovered zero at the beginning of our era, half a millennium before the Hindus, and created a position numbering system analogous to ours, except that they used base 20 instead of base 10.
Obsessed with time, they worked out a spectacular calendar. They named the days in cycles of 13 and 20 days and made 260 names. They also used a 365 day cycle that was divided into 18 months of 20 days plus a special month of 5 days. The combination of these two counts is repeated every 18,980 days (the minimum common multiple between 260 and 365), just over 50 years old.
For historical records they used the “long calendar”, a complex combination of different cycles, the beginning of which they set in the creation of the world, which would have been 3,114 on August 13th. One of these cycles was completed on December 21, 2012 and there was no shortage of people wanting to see a prophecy about the end of the world (they even made a movie). But the Mayan calendar has much longer cycles.
The next step would be to decipher the rest of the Mayan script, but it wasn’t easy. One point of support would be the languages spoken by the approximately 6 million descendants living in the region, but there are more than 30 different languages. The Egyptian script had been deciphered from the names of the pharaohs, whose hieroglyphics were easy to identify. But nobody knew the names of the Mayan kings … In addition, there is no bilingual “rosette stone” as in the Egyptian case.
Or does it exist? We’ll know next week.