The Mayan calendar is a complex system of time-tracking developed by the Mayan civilization of Mesoamerica. The calendar actually uses several different cycles, or methods of keeping track of time according to astronomic or mythic events. Although the Mayan calendar was not the only calendar in use by the ancient civilizations of Central and South America, many experts consider it the most advanced, and a clear indication of the scholarly emphasis in Mayan culture.
The most commonly understood Mayan calendar is called the Tzolk’in. This calendar divides a year or cycle into twenty sections of thirteen days, each with an associated spiritual figure. The year is 260 days, although the understanding as to why a cycle lasts that long is unclear. Some believe it is related to the length of pregnancy, the length of time between planting crops and harvesting, or that it is due to the importance of the numbers 13 and 20 in Mayan culture.
In addition to the Tzolk’in cycle, a connected solar cycle called the Haab’ was used. This calendar divided the year into 18 months with 20 days each, and an additional five unnamed days at the end of the year. The calendars were used in conjunction, so that any specific day identified by both the Tzolk’in and Haab’ methods would only occur once in a 52 year cycle. Instead of counting the years in number, this conjunction is believed to have been used as an accurate description of a date.
For periods longer than 52 years, an additional calendar method was developed called the Long Count. This allowed determination of extremely long periods, and is often found carved on Mayan monuments. From what anthropologists can tell, the Long Count began approximately on 11 August 3114 BCE, according to the Gregorian calendar. Since there is no evidence that the Long Count is meant to be repeating, some believe that the Mayans expected the world to end at the completion of the Long Count cycle, which will be in 21 December 2012. According to some popular astrologers and New Age thinkers, it is on this day that an apocalypse or similar revolutionary global event will take place.
The Mayan calendar is a window into an ancient world, one that Western authorities long and mistakenly believed was a primitive and barbaric place. Instead, as investigations into early Mesoamerican culture have continued, archeologists and anthropologists continue to turn up evidence of highly advanced societies that rivaled or surpassed their Western contemporaries. The complexity of the Mayan calendar tells experts quite a bit about their culture: for example, that they were astronomers. It also suggests an awareness of societal longevity; the Long Count clearly shows that the Mayans knew they would be around for a while.
Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica remains shrouded in mystery, no matter how many temples we discover or artifacts we find. It is interesting to reflect on the possible influence the culture would have asserted had Western imperialism and clan wars not destroyed much of the civilization. The discovery and understanding of the Mayan calendar is a precious piece of information, worth study and scholarly pursuit, and an open door into a mist-shrouded history that experts still try valiantly to understand.