Inside a ruined pyramid in the Guatemalan jungle, archaeologists have unearthed the oldest known Maya painting, a brightly colored 30-foot-long mural depicting the creation myth and the coronation of the Maya's first earthly king.
The paint-on-plaster image, three feet tall and nearly 2,100 years old, predates other depictions of the creation myth by several centuries.
"It's the equivalent for the Maya of the Biblical account of Genesis, but it's more than that because it provides a link between the gods of creation and the Maya kings," said Francisco Estrada-Belli, an archaeologist with Vanderbilt University who was not involved in the discovery.
That story has been passed down almost unchanged to the modern era, said William Saturno of the University of New Hampshire, the archaeologist who discovered the mural.
"A Maya today could say, 'This story is the same story I tell my kids'," he said.
The mural was discovered at the remote site of San Bartolo, about two days' hike north of the once-powerful Maya city of Tikal.
In a full palette of colors and in intricate detail, a series of scenes in the mural shows the maize god creating earth, ocean and skies and ultimately crowning himself king. The final scene shows the similar crowning of the first human king in the company of the gods.
David Freidel, an archaeologist with Southern Methodist University who was not involved in the research, called the painting a "masterpiece."
The scenes "are executed with the confidence, compositional imagination, and technical perfection of an artist who, while anonymous, must rank with the best the world has ever known."
In a related finding near the mural, Monica Pellecer Alecio, a Guatemalan archaeologist, discovered the oldest known tomb of a Maya king, dating from about 150 BC.
The findings were announced yesterday in Washington at a news conference sponsored by the National Geographic Society and will be reported in the January issue of National Geographic magazine.
The discovery supports many researchers' arguments that the social structures and culture of the Maya Classic period, which extended from A.D. 300 to 900, were in place much earlier.
Many archaeologists have argued that the pre-Classic societies, dating back to 300 B.C., were not fully civilized because they did not have writing and they did not have formal kingships similar to those of later periods.
The new mural discounts both of those arguments "without any doubt," Estrada-Belli said. It shows that they had a sophisticated system of writing and that the kings obtained and exercised their powers with all the trappings and symbols of kingship found in later Maya societies.
Indigenous people began farming the San Bartolo area around 700 B.C. and started constructing a plaza and pyramids 300 years later, Saturno said.
Thomas H. Maugh II writes for the Los Angeles Times.