The ancient Maya are known around the world for their great cities, high level of civilization, and pyramids that tower above the jungle canopy. Ever since interest in the Maya began to surge in the 19th century, scientists and the public at large have wondered how the peoples of southern México and Central America were able to accomplish so much.
There is no need for pseudoscientific theories about alien intervention or the aid of Egyptian explorers to account for the successes of the Maya. Factors such as plentiful water, an abundance of natural resources, and a growing population certainly contributed to the process which saw the Maya go from small-scale agriculturalists to the masters of one of the greatest civilizations in history.
But there is one factor that often goes overlooked: the accuracy of their calendar system. Now you may be wondering why having a good calendar is so important to building a civilization. Ultimately, it comes down to time management. Having a precise calendar allowed the Maya to know when to tend to crops, when to build, and when to best allocate resources for war. It was also important to keep track of days of religious significance and predict astrological phenomena such as eclipses.
As is also the case with their writing system, the Maya likely created their calendar based on knowledge developed by the Olmec civilization. Over time, the Maya built upon this and devised a calendar surprisingly similar to our own. The Habb solar calendar is divided into 365 days (sound familiar?) made up of 18 months with 20 days each, with an unlucky five-day period at the end. This calendar was of a mostly secular nature and was used mainly to keep track of the seasons and for agriculture.
The Pyramid of Kukulkán in Chichén Itzá is seen by many as a giant representation of the Habb calendar, as its steps number 364, with the platform at the top counting as a final step to make 365. The names of the months of the Habb calendar were represented using hieroglyphics with meanings relating to expected natural phenomena. For example, the seventh month was known as Yax´kin which means new sun, and the ninth was called Ch’en, or dark storm.
Apart from the Haab calendar, the Maya also used other dating systems such as the sacred Tzolk’in or Bucxok calendar which was made up of 260 days, the lunar calendar made up of 18 lunar months, and the Noh Ek (Venus) calendar comprising 854 days.
You may remember all the commotion surrounding the supposed Maya prophecy which said the world would end in 2012. This idea had its root in many people’s misunderstanding of the Maya long count calendar, which does not end, but simply resets every 5,200 years. This calendar is believed to be one of the oldest in the world and records events stretching back to the year 3113 B.C.E, of our contemporary Gregorian calendar.
Editorial by Carlos Rosado.
Photography by Yucatán Today for use in Yucatán Today.
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