Home > B. The Living Artifact > 12-21-12: The Long Count Calender and the Maya

12-21-12: The Long Count Calender and the Maya



Much is being made of the ancient Mayan prediction that the world will end today. Nobody, needless to say, is too worried about the accuracy of the prediction.

What is worth noting about the Maya, among other things, is their Long Count Calender. The first thing to know about the Long Count, along with its associated calendars, the Haab and the Tzolk’in, is that they are incredibly complicated and fantastically accurate. That is to say, the ancient Mesoamerican calendars are truer to the observed motion of the stars than our own calender, the Gregorian, is.


And here is where the complexity comes in. For starters, the Mesoamerican counting system isn’t based on the number 10, but on the number 20–more or a less. In fact, numbers roll over when they reach 18.

The Long Count is an astronomical calendar that measures vast stretches of time–each of the LC periods lasts about 7,885 solar years. The Haab is a solar calendar that contains 365 whole days and is divided into 18 months. The Tzolk’in is a ritual calendar of 260 days divided into 13-day periods.

And here is where things getting truly mind-blowing: the Haab, the Tzolkin, and the Long Count can all be pictured as wheels working together like gears in a machine. No joke. It is this system of three gears that produced the date-names associated with each day in ancient Mesoamerica.


Hmmm. And here are a few more things to think about. The Mesoamerican writing systems are one of five instances in human history of the independent invention of writing. That’s right–just four other societies–Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, and China– created a writing system from scratch. And the Mayan glyphs, which in fact are a syllabary, are very complex, so much so that it is only in the last 20-or-so years that archaeologists have been able to read Classic Mayan with confidence.

Finally, there is the Popul Vuh, the Maya book of creation. The PV tells of a series of creations, of which which the human is the last, the present cosmic era. This account is reminiscent of the scientific account of evolution, which underlines the fact that, beyond their many gods, the Maya studied and worshiped time. The Maya were (and are) one of the world’s great peoples, inventors, watchers of stars, builders of monumental cities.

Be that as it may, it seems quite unlikely that the lights will go out today…



Image: Maya stela containing the Mayan creation date. WikiCmns. Public Domain.


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