Archaeologists in Guatemala have uncovered the oldest evidence of the Maya calendar: two wall fragments that, when put together, reveal a notation known as “7 deer,” a new study finds.
The two “7 deer” fragments date from between 300 B.C. and 200 BC. B.C., according to radiocarbon dating by the research team. This early date indicates that Maya The divination calendar, which was also used by other pre-Columbian cultures in Mesoamerica, such as the Aztecs, has been in continuous use for at least 2,300 years, just as it is still followed today by the modern Maya, the researchers said. (Notably, this is not the Long Count calendar that some people think Second hand to indicate that the world would end in 2012.)
“It is the one calendar that survived all the conquests and the civil war in Guatemala,” conducted from 1960 to 1996, examines first author David Stuart, the Schele Professor of Mesoamerican Art and Writing at the University of Texas at Austin, said Live Science. “The Maya of today have retained it in many communities to connect with their ideas of destiny and people’s relationship to the world around them. It’s not a revival. It’s actually a preservation of the calendar.”
The researchers found the wall fragments at the San Bartolo archaeological site, northeast of the ancient Mayan city of Tikal. Stuart was part of the team that discovered San Bartolo in 2001. “It’s in the remote jungles of northern Guatemala” and is famous for its Maya murals from the late Preclassic period (400 BC to 200 AD), he said.
The murals in San Bartolo are in a huge complex called Las Pinturas, which the Maya built over hundreds of years. From time to time the Maya built over an ancient complex and built larger and more impressive structures. As a result, Las Pinturas is layered like a layer Onion. If archaeologists tunnel into its inner layers, they can find earlier structures and murals, Stuart said.
Researchers collected ancient organic material, such as charcoal, in the layer where the wall fragments were discovered. By radiocarbon dating these fragments, they were able to estimate when the murals were created.
However, these murals were not in one piece. In total, the team discovered about 7,000 fragments of various murals. From this colossal collection, the team analyzed 11 wall fragments, discovered between 2002 and 2012, using radiocarbon dating. This included the two parts that made up the notation “7 stags,” which contains a glyph or image of a stag below the Mayan symbol for the number seven (a horizontal line with two dots above it).
Four Mayan Calendars
The Maya had four calendars because “they were very interested in timekeeping,” Stuart said. “They had very sophisticated and elegant ways of tracking time.”
One is the Sacred Divination Calendar, or Tzolk’in, from which this “7 Deer” notation is derived. This calendar has 260 days consisting of a combination of 13 numbers and 20 days that have different signs (like deer). It’s unclear why the Maya chose 260 days for this cycle, but one idea is that it’s roughly the gestational age of a human fetus, Marcello Canuto, director of the Middle American Research Institute at Tulane University, who wasn’t involved with the study was, Live Science said.
However, the 260 days do not make a year. Rather, it is a cycle similar to the seven-day week. The “7 deer” notation doesn’t give you a date; it doesn’t tell you the season or year something happened. “It’s like saying Napoleon invaded Russia on a Wednesday,” Canuto said.
Today, the 260-day cycle in the Tzolk’in calendar is used for divination and ceremonial records, Stuart said. “There are date keepers, as they’re called, in Guatemala today,” Stuart said. “If you said the day is 7 stags, you would say, ‘Oh yes, 7 stags, that means this, this, and that.'”
The other Maya calendars are the Haab’, a solar calendar lasting 365 days but not allowing for leap years; a lunar calendar; and the Long Count calendar, which tracks major time cycles and caused quite a stir when some people (wrongly) thought it predicted the end of the world in 2012, Live Science previously reported.
“[I remember] all that nonsense in 2012 about the end of a cycle,” Stuart said. “Everyone said, ‘It’s the end of the calendar.’ But no, they didn’t understand that there was another cycle after that.”
There are other calendar notations that could may predate the newly described 7 deer find, but these artifacts pose a challenge as they were carved in stone (which contains no datable radioactive carbon). Additionally, those chiseled stones may have been moved, meaning a date from the site may not reflect the date on those calendars, Stuart said. For example, a proposed Tzolk’in calendar found in the Oaxaca Valley, Mexico has dates from 700 B.C. to 100 BC according to to several studies.
When these four types of calendars are taken into account, this “7 stags” notation is the “earliest possible evidence of a Maya calendar.” [the] earliest secure dated evidence somewhere in Mesoamerica,” Stuart said.
Archaeologists were surprised to find the deer glyph. Later Maya Tzolk’in notations almost always write out the word for stag rather than draw a glyph of the animal, Stuart said. In fact, these fragments could be evidence of an early stage of Maya writing, he said.
“We speculate a bit in the article that this may be an early stage in the writing system, when they haven’t quite established the norms we’re used to,” Stuart said. He added that it is unclear where in Mesoamerica this calendar system began.
Those two lines of evidence help tie everything together, Canuto noted. “The text seems to suggest something really archaic, and then the radiocarbon and context of dating seem to support that,” he said.
The study was “meticulously conducted,” Walter Witschey, a retired research professor of anthropology and geography at Longwood University in Virginia and a research associate at the Middle American Research Institute, told Live Science in an email. The find is “evidence of the earliest known calendar notation from the Maya region,” he said.
The study was published online in the journal on Wednesday (April 13). scientific advances.
Originally published on Live Science.
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