How the Maya Created Their Extraordinarily Accurate Calendar Thousands of Years Ago

Maria J. Danford

8 a long time ago, the world was meant to conclusion. At the very least that’s what some interpreters of the ancient Maya calendar considered. They observed that the Maya Extended Rely calendar appeared to be functioning out of days, and would conclusion on Dec. 21, 2012. Various doomsday scenarios, asteroids that includes prominently among them, were being forecast.

Of program, the winter season solstice of 2012 arrived and went with minimal to present for it. The Maya calendar just ticked around to a new b’ak’tun, equal to about 394 a long time, and the world continued.

The obsession with the Maya calendar and doomsday helps make feeling from a single standpoint. Just after all, Maya religious observances did count closely on their surprisingly precise calendar. But the calendar year 2012 very likely never ever figured into Maya eschatology, the research of conclusion situations — that a single was all us.

The Maya made a comprehensive system of timekeeping based mostly mostly on astronomical measurements that let them time agricultural functions, religious observances and much more. Their richly comprehensive calendar has drawn archaeological curiosity for decades, as the two an example of Maya ingenuity and for the insights into their society it incorporates.

The calendar was intimately interwoven with their religion and cosmology, lending it an aura of mystical perception that resonates right now. Spiritual although it may possibly appear to be, the actual origin of the calendar is firmly grounded in science.

Obtaining Time in the Stars 

The Maya were being outstanding astronomers — they erected complete structures to serve as observatories and produced comprehensive tables cataloging the actions of the moon, Mars and other planets. Maya astronomical calculations even properly dated a 1991 solar eclipse. Observations like these formed the foundation for their calendar the celestial clock supplied a reasonably precise suggests of measuring the passage of time. 

maya observatory (Credit: Daniel Schwen/CC BY-SA 4.0/Wikimedia Commons)

(Credit score: Daniel Schwen/CC BY-SA 4./Wikimedia Commons)

The Maya manufactured use of various interlocking calendars, although they very likely did not invent them. There are powerful similarities amongst Maya calendars and individuals used by more mature Central American civilizations like the Olmec. The Maya show up to have just expanded on these.

The Maya used two independent calendars that counted off days, the haab and the tzolk’in (although the latter is a phrase contemporary archaeologists bestowed on the calendar the Maya use various diverse names for it). The haab consists of eighteen months of 20 days each, with an additional thirty day period of five days known as the Wayab, for a full of 365 days. The Wayab was thought of a unsafe time, and the Maya would make choices and perform religious observances to ward off sick-fortune. The tzolkin has 260 days, and consists of 20 named days and thirteen numbers, with each mixture of title and quantity happening the moment.

The Maya nevertheless use these two calendars right now to guide their agricultural year and to dictate the timing of religious observances. Associates of their society have been keeping count of the days for properly around two thousand a long time — an unbroken string of timekeeping.

Madrid Codex astronomer

Representation of a Maya astronomer with their eye outstretched. (Credit score: Public Area/Wikimedia Commons)

As with the Maya of right now, the calendar held enormous functional benefit to their forebears. It allowed them to work out when to start planting, harvesting and other agricultural activities each calendar year, and knowledgeable the elaborate plan of rituals and ceremonies to several deities that were being at the middle of their society.

A great deal of the Maya’s comprehending of time arrived from the movement of celestial bodies. Like us, the passage of the Sun knowledgeable the duration of a working day and the time amongst solstices was a calendar year. But the Maya also tracked the actions of other bodies with excessive precision. The couple surviving items of Maya writing include tables cataloging the actions of planets and almanacs that attempted to make forecasts for the upcoming based mostly on them.

The Dresden Codex, the oldest surviving book penned in the Americas, incorporates tables charting the actions of Venus, Mars and the Moon. The Maya also calculated the incidence of lunar eclipses based mostly on observations and tracked the movement of Jupiter and Saturn. The typical movement of the planets very likely formed the foundation for a lot of the Maya’s religious calendar, as they aligned critical functions with the placement of the planets in the night sky.

Dresden Codex pp.58-62 78

(Credit score: Public Area/Wikimedia Commons)

Keeping Time

The haab and tzolk’in calendars are used alongside one another to make a cycle known as the Calendar Spherical, which lasts about 52 a long time, or eighteen,980 days. That quantity is the the very least popular multiple of 260 and 365, or the initially issue at which the two calendars meet. Just after a single Calendar Spherical is concluded, an additional starts.

Mainly because the intertwined haab and tzolk’in repeat each and every 52 a long time, the Maya desired an additional way to hold observe of for a longer period durations of time. This led them to create a totally independent system of time-keeping, the Extended Rely.

The Extended Rely is a base-20, or vigesimal quantity system, with a single exception. As with our individual base-10 quantity system, there’s very likely a simple rationalization for this. We have five fingers on each hand, and two palms — we selected to count making use of our fingers, although the Maya used fingers and toes.

The base unit of the Extended Rely is a working day, known as a kin. Twenty kin is a uinal (or winal), eighteen uinal is a tun, 20 tun is a k’atun and 20 k’atun is a b’ak’tun. The odd eighteen count is very likely to deliver a tun nearer to a solar calendar year — a single tun is 360 days, instead than the 400 it would be if counting by 20.

The Maya wrote Extended Rely dates from still left to proper, commencing with the biggest quantity. For example, Dec. 21 is penned as thirteen..8.2.2, or thirteen b’ak’tun, k’atun, 8 tun, 2 uinal and 2 kin. That count also lets us to trace back again to the exact calendar year the Maya believe our existing world started on: 3114 B.C., about 600 a long time right before the Pyramids of Giza were being designed.

The Maya manufactured a pattern of writing the day, as calculated by the Extended Rely, on many of their inscriptions. For this motive, archaeologists can convey to accurately when major functions took place in the Maya world. For example, we know the effective city of Tikal was conquered by an alliance of the rival cities Caracol and Calakmul in A.D. 562. Tikal would confirm victorious around the close by city of Dos Pilas in the upcoming century, in 672, only to be defeated five a long time later on by La Corona, an ally of Calakmul. The coronations of new kings, as properly as the conclusion of k’atuns and other auspicious dates, were being also recorded on stela.

The Maya in some cases observed dates in terms of their length from an additional day. Some calculations making use of this form of notation show up to have been used to refer to functions terribly significantly back again in the past. One particular day corresponds to an event some ninety million a long time right before A.D. 761, an additional stretches back again even further more, to 400 million a long time.

Finds like these, writes archaeologist Clive Ruggles, reveal the broader importance of the Maya’s use of calendars. Building such lengthy blocks of time, he states, allowed the Maya to conceive of heritage on a grand scale.

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