note: the text below follows the Maya order of reading found in most inscriptions: start at the top paragraph on the left, then go to the top paragraph on the right; then go down to the second paragraph on the left, then right; then down again proceeding in this way to the end.

Mesoamerican calendars were most complex systems that cannot be reduced to a quick and easy account. Simple description alone will require several pages. To begin, this page will describe the Long Count, which is particularly Maya; no other group used this method. "Long Count" is our name for Maya dates reckoned from the start of a "current era", which began in our year 3,114 BC, and was a retrospective determination when it was established possibly as late as 300 BC. The practice of Long Count dating may not have begun much earlier than this. The starting point is sometimes cited by modern scholars as the mythological beginning of the ancient Maya world. That this is incorrect is shown by Maya dates that refer to earlier times.
Some Maya dates run millions of years into the past. What really began in 3,114 BC is a span of 13 Baktuns (periods of 400 years), the current era. The Classic Maya thought of themselves as living in this particular era. It will end, when the count reaches its total of 13 Baktuns, in our year 2,012. Although this span of more than five thousand years may have been of supreme importance for the Maya who lived during the Classic Period, no specific name for it has come to light. How they, retroactively, selected the date to start the era (the zero point of the Long Count) is probably tied up in highly complicated calendrical and astronomical reckonings that must have been practised centuries before the Long Count itself was developed. It is likely that eras of 13 Baktuns possessed good or bad luck just as katuns (twenty year periods) did during the Post Classic. Many Classic inscriptions refer to the era starting date (c.f.Palenque). It obviously was of importance all the way through the Classic Period. Predictions for the era as a whole probably formed part of the special knowledge possessed by priests and used by rulers as a basis for their authority.
Use of the Long Count is one cultural feature that separates the Classic and Post Classic Periods. During the Post Classic, dates were recorded within katuns rather than within the Long Count era. This may be a lot more significant that merely a change in the form of date notation. The whole Classic system of rulership, authority and priestly knowledge may have been based on predictions for the whole 13 Baktun era. By the end of the 9th Baktun (Cycle 9, or ( in Long Count form), faith in these predictions appears to have faltered. Elite social status seems to have shriveled up. Monumental temples and stelae were no longer made, many Classic Period centres were abandoned, and warefare became even more violent and destructive. Populations diminished drastically, and the reduced number of people tended to settle in different areas, although there are some notable exceptions, and some centres became more powerful than they had been earlier.

Home | Maya | Forum | Society | Gallery  | Back | Next