The Short and Long Count of the Mayan Calendar

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The Mayan civilization was very advanced for its time, and had great knowledge of astronomy, geometry and last but not least – ways to measure the time. Many experts in the fields of astronomy, mathematics and other sciences find the way the Maya used to calculate time periods unique.

The essentials of their calendar system were similar to other calendar systems found in the same region of the world by other Mesoamerican civilizations, dating as far back in time as the fifth century BC.

The earlier form of the Mayan calendar was only used to present the concept of time as past, present and future. The Maya understood very well that time is linear and that they needed a way to tell if one event had happened before another. This very basic concept quickly evolved into a lot more complicated, sophisticated and precise calendar system, which people find fascinating even today.

Long and Short Count

There are two major parts in the Mayan calendar which are used to calculate and measure the time – the Long Count and the Short Count. Both the Long Count and the Short Count have a specific date as a starting point – August 11, 3114 BC if we are using the current Gregorian calendar to define it, and September 6, 3114 BC if we are using the Julian calendar.

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The Short Count was used for measuring short periods of time. It consisted of 260 days, divided into 13 periods (20 days each). This way of counting the time is still used in some areas of Guatemala by ancestors of the Mesoamerican civilizations.

The Long Count was used mainly for measuring longer periods of time and events that happened a very long time ago, or will happen very far into the future. This calendar system was also used for the inscription of calendar dates.

The cycle of the Long Count is independent of the solar year, as the Maya used the vigesimal (base 20) instead of the decimal (base 10) numeral system. One Long Count period following the rule above should have been equal to 400 days, but the Maya allowed an exception to the rule and the actual Long Count period is 360 days. Even though this newly formed period is close to the solar year, it is still five days shorter. It is not certain why the Maya decided to transform their calendar slightly, but the fact that they did so shows how well they understood and observed the sky and the positioning of the stars in it.

The Moon and Venus also played a very important role in the calendar of the ancient Maya, and they have separate Long Count inscriptions to represent the lunar cycles and a Venus cycle.

One Venus cycle was 584 days long, and events such as warfare and conquests were timed to match specific stages of this cycle. Scientists today find interesting the fact that the Maya were able to calculate the Venus cycle very accurately; showing great observation and astronomy skills and understanding of the way the planets move in the sky.

The lunar cycles also play a very important role, as historians have found out. The Mayan calendar has different lunar cycles that are associated with deities, animals, food and weather. These cycles show how advanced the culture of the Mayan was and how close the connection was between them and nature.

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In conclusion, the Mayan calendar is a very sophisticated tool to measure the time in short or long periods. It shows that the Mayans understood the concept of time, and had a smart way to place an event in a period of time – past, present or future. They created an evolved and advanced calendar concept (the Long Count) by adding additional supplementary forms to the initial calendar (the Short Count). As a result, the Mayan calendar was perhaps the most advanced and unique calendar for its time, and many civilizations implemented it partly or fully during the following centuries.

 

Some good links:

 

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