The ancient Mayans had the world’s most accurate calendar.
Many dates carved at Mayan ruins reveal how Mayan civilization used calendars. This calendar called the “Count of Baktuns” keeps a continuous count of days from the beginning of the last Great Cycle, when the Mayas say our current human race was created. Archeologists call this the “Long Count.” Although the Long Count Calendar seems a linear recording of days, actually it is a cycle, in keeping with the many other cycles that shaped Mayan culture. The Long Count is a large cycle of 5125 years or 5200 tuns. The tun is a 360-day count that is referred to as a Maya year. The ancient Mayans knew the solar year was slightly longer. By their calculations it was 365.2422 days, closer to the sun’s actual annual movements than the Gregorian calendar’s 365.2425 days that we now use.
The genius of the Long Count is its ability to record time into the fathomless past and the infinite future. The levels of counting used by the Mayas acted logarithmically, so progressively higher counts become huge very quickly. Theirs is a base-20 or vigesimal system (we use a base-10 system). There are carved stelae in plazas and panels in Mayan pyramids that record dates going 28 octillion years into the past and over four thousand years into the future. These huge cycles appear multiple times in the Dresden Codex and inscriptions of Palenque, Copan, Quirigua, Tikal, Yaxchilan and Coba.
Let’s try to get some idea of how huge these Long Counts are.
Stela 1 at Coba is totally amazing. It begins with the last creation date, established by archeologists as August 13, 3114 BCE. The Mayas inscribe that date as Baktun 13, Katun 0, Tun 0, Uinal 0, Kin 0 and the accepted archeological shorthand is written 126.96.36.199.0. Using two other calendars, the Tzolk’in sacred numeric count and the Haab solar month/day count, the Mayas assigned a specific name
to that creation day of 4 Ahau 8 Kumk’u. Other glyphs on the stela record the lunation phase of the moon and the assigned God of the Night. Then starts a progression of 13’s in the higher order count that each signify completion of a Great Cycle. There are 20 of these 13’s above the creation date. If you do the math, going up by a magnitude of 20 at each step, the date becomes 28 octillion years in the past! That’s a count that goes eight levels above a billion years – the number is mindboggling and far beyond the age that scientists calculate for our universe.
Other immense past dates appear in the Dresden Codex that records a count of 13 consecutive 13’s, and Temple 33 at Yaxchilan that has a panel with 10 of these 13’s above a contemporary date.
Positions of the Long Count Calendar with Day and Year Counts
Days/Kins per Time Period
|Baktun||0-19||144,000 Kin = 20 Katun = 1 Baktun||394.25||400|
|Katun||0-19||7,200 Kin = 20 Tun = 1 Katun||19.71||20|
|Tun||0-19||300 Kin = 18 Uinal = 1 Tun||0.985||1|
|Uinal||0-17||20 Kin = 1 Uinal||—||—|
|Kin||0-19||1 Kin = 1 Kin||—||—|
What do all these 13’s mean? Archeologists disagree about exactly how the Maya counted Baktuns. There is clear evidence that the Baktun cycle runs in counts of 20, like all the other positions (except Uinals that end in 18). But many instances of dates use a string of 13’s in the count above the Baktun. One explanation is the Mayas used 13 to signify completion of an era, or creation. There are definite cycles in the Mayan calendar with set numbers of days (Katun, Tun, Uinal, Kin). An era signifies something different and may not have an exact number of years. For instance, the western world uses “era” for such
things as the Iron Age, the Renaissance, and the Industrial Age which do not have clearly demarcated time lengths.
It’s possible the Mayas were doing something similar with their string of 13’s. The last “era” or creation began when the calendar rolled over from 188.8.131.52.19 (August 12, 3114 BCE) to 184.108.40.206.0 (August 13, 3114 BCE). They also used counts that topped out at 13 Baktuns for divination, since the divinatory days only go to number 13.
The Count of Baktuns or Long Count gives a timeline that goes through all of Maya history, and into mythological time both past and future. The earliest known Long Count dates were carved in 31 BCE at the Olmec site of Tres Zapotes, and in 36 CE at the Maya site of Chiapa de Corzo in the Highlands of Chiapas, Mexico. The last date was carved in 909 CE at Tonina in Chiapas.
Curious about the “end of the Mayan calendar” on December 21, 2012? This was the completion of a Great Cycle of 5125 years that began on August 13, 3114 BCE. The Mayan calendar did not end, it just rolled over into the next cycle and a new era began. What about all the “end of the world” commotion around that cycle ending? The short answer is the Mayas never predicted an end of the world, just the completion of one large cycle and starting another. Read more at my Facebook post: “Why the World Didn’t End on December 21, 2012”