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Kendriya Vidyalaya Port Trust, Kochi

The Mayan Calendar

The Mayans had an elaborate calendrical system, no longer in use, which obviously evolved in complete isolation from those of the old world. This system ended with the fall of the Mayan civilization. Most of the remaining knowledge of it was destroyed by the Spanish during the conquest. It was not until very recently, during the 1990s, that archeologists have finally been able to fill in many of the gaps in our knowledge of Mayan civilization, including the calendrical system.

The Mayans were skilled mathematicians, and this shows in their calendar; besides having a concept of zero, they also had a firm grasp of modular arithmetic; they also worked extensively in base 20. However, despite their great skill at observing the heavens, their calendar has no relationship to lunar or seasonal cycles, and is only synchronized with the solar cycle year approximately. The Mayans were aware of this discrepancy; they simply didn’t feel the compelling need to synchronize their calendar with the sun that Old World civilizations did.

The Mayans used three separate calendars. The Long Count was pricipally used for historical purposes, since it can define any date for millenia in the past and future. The Haab was a civil calendar based on a year of 360 days consisting of 18 periods of 20 days. Five days were added at the end of the Haab year to approximately synchronize it with the solar year. The Tzolkin calendar was used for ceremonial purposes, which had 20 periods of 13 days. The Tzolkin calendar went through a complete cycle every 260 days. The signficance of this cycle is unknown; it may be connected with the orbit of Venus, which has a period of 263 days. The Haab and Tzolkin dates did not have a year component; however, a combined Haab and Tzolkin date specify a unique day within a 52 year cycle.

…I feel confident that there was no such thing as an initial point of departure for the Maya calendar, but, rather, time was conceived of as without beginning or end, and therefore one could project one’s calculations farther and farther into the past without ever reaching a starting point.–J. Eric S. Thompson, Maya Hieroglyphic Writing, p. 149 (emphasis added)

The essentials of the Maya calendar are based upon a system which had been in common use throughout the region, dating back to at least the 5th century BCE. It shares many aspects with calendars employed by other earlier Mesoamerican civilizations, such as the Zapotec and Olmec, and contemporary or later ones such as the Mixtec and Aztec calendars. Although the Mesoamerican calendar did not originate with the Maya, their subsequent extensions and refinements of it were the most sophisticated. Along with those of the Aztecs, the Maya calendars are the best-documented and most completely understood.

By the Maya mythological tradition, as documented in Colonial Yucatec accounts and reconstructed from Late Classic and Postclassic inscriptions, the deity Itzamna is frequently credited with bringing the knowledge of the calendar system to the ancestral Maya, along with writing in general and other foundational aspects of Maya culture.

[From Wikipedia and other sources]

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Book Highlight



Told in diary form by an irresistible heroine, this playful and perceptive novel from the New York Times bestselling author of the May Bird trilogy sparkles with science, myth, magic, and the strange beauty of the everyday marvels we sometimes forget to notice.

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Book info & cover courtesy: goodreads.com

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