The Long and Short Count
"Mayan Calendar"

The Maya calendar is a system of calendars and almanacs used in the Maya civilization of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, and in many modern Mayan communities.

The essentials of the Mayan calendar system 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 the Aztecs.

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.

Long Count

Since Calendar Round dates repeat every 18,980 days, approximately 52 solar years, the cycle repeats roughly once each lifetime, so a more refined method of dating was needed if history was to be recorded accurately. To specify dates over periods longer than 52 years, Mesoamericans used the Long Count calendar.

The Maya name for a day was k'in. Twenty of these k'ins are known as a winal or uinal. Eighteen winals make one tun. Twenty tuns are known as a k'atun. Twenty k'atuns make a b'ak'tun.

The Long Count calendar identifies a date by counting the number of days from the Mayan creation date 4 Ahaw, 8 Kumk'u (August 11, 3114 BC in the proleptic Gregorian calendar or September 6 in the Julian calendar). But instead of using a base-10 (decimal) scheme like Western numbering, the Long Count days were tallied in a modified base-20 scheme. Thus 0.0.0.1.5 is equal to 25, and 0.0.0.2.0 is equal to 40. As the winal unit resets after only counting to 18, the Long Count consistently uses base-20 only if the tun is considered the primary unit of measurement, not the k'in; with the k'in and winal units being the number of days in the tun. The Long Count 0.0.1.0.0 represents 360 days, rather than the 400 in a purely base-20 (vigesimal) count.


Table of Long Count units

Days

Long Count period

Long Count period

Approx solar years

1

= 1 K'in

20

= 20 K'in

= 1 Winal

0.0548

360

= 18 Winal

= 1 Tun

0.985

7,200

= 20 Tun

= 1 K'atun

19.7

144,000

= 20 K'atun

= 1 B'ak'tun

394.3



There are also four rarely used higher-order cycles: piktun, kalabtun, k'inchiltun, and alautun.

Since the Long Count dates are unambiguous, the Long Count was particularly well suited to use on monuments. The monumental inscriptions would not only include the 5 digits of the Long Count, but would also include the two tzolk'in characters followed by the two haab' characters.

Misinterpretation of the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar is the basis for a New Age belief that a cataclysm will take place on December 21, 2012. December 21, 2012 is simply the day that the calendar will go to the next b'ak'tun.

Sandra Noble, executive director of the Mesoamerican research organization FAMSI, notes that "for the ancient Maya, it was a huge celebration to make it to the end of a whole cycle". She considers the portrayal of December 2012 as a doomsday or cosmic-shift event to be "a complete fabrication and a chance for a lot of people to cash in. The 2009 science fiction apocalyptic disaster film 2012 is based on this belief.

Short Count

In the kingdoms of Postclassic Yucatán, the linear Long Count notation fell into disuse and gave way to a cyclical Short Count of 13 katuns (or 260 tuns), in which each katun was named after its concluding day, Ahau ('Lord'). 1 Imix was selected as the recurrent 'first day' of the cycle, corresponding to 1 Cipactli in the Aztec day count. The cycle was counted from katun 11 Ahau to katun 13 Ahau, with the coefficients of the katuns' concluding days running in the order 11 – 9 – 7 – 5 – 3 – 1 – 12 – 10 – 8 – 6 – 4 – 2 – 13 Ahau (since a division of 20 × 360 days by 13 falls 2 days short). The concluding day 13 Ahau was followed by the re-entering first day 1 Imix. This is the system as found in the colonial Books of Chilam Balam. In characteristic Mesoamerican fashion, these books project the cycle onto the landscape, with 13 Ahauob 'Lordships' dividing the land of Yucatán into 13 'kingdoms'.

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