One of my first posts on View from the Edge was a collection of posts I’d made elsewhere on the Mayan calender. It actually ended up being two posts (here and here), but its always been a fairly disjointed collection of thoughts. I’ve wanted to make a more coherent post on the subject for some time now, and this post today is the result.

Across the internet over the past few years, there has been a lot of interest in the year 2012, specifically Dec 21st, in the form of web pages and form letter forwards. The reason for the interest is that day marks a “click-over” in a part of the Mayan Calender called the “long count.” According to the Mesoamerican Long Count Calender, we are currently living in humanity’s twelfth “b’ak’tun” and Dec 21sst, 2012 on our calender will mark the transition to the thirteenth b’ak’tun. More than a century, but less than a millennium, each b’ak’tun correlates to just under 395 of our years. More significantly, perhaps, is the notion that we are currently nearing the end of the “fourth world.[7] The Popol Vuh describes the first three creations that the gods failed in making and the creation of the successful fourth world where men were placed. In the Maya Long Count, the previous creation ended at the start of a 13th b’ak’tun.” (from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mesoamerican_Long_Count_calendar)

Like our calender, the Mayan calender is divided into segments of different lengths. Where we have days, weeks, months, years, and on and on, the Mayans had kin, winal, tun, and ka’tun before they got to b’ak’tun, with kin being directly equivalent to a day, and a ka’tun being roughly equivalent to 20 years on our calender. The following chart from Wikipedia shows the relation of the various levels to each other.

Days Long Count period Long Count period Approx solar years
1 = 1 K’in    
20 = 20 K’in = 1 Winal 1/18th
360 = 18 Winal = 1 Tun 1
7,200 = 20 Tun = 1 K’atun 20
144,000 = 20 K’atun = 1 B’ak’tun 395

from Mayan Calender on Wikipedia

Its always interesting to look at old calender systems as they tend to reveal things to us about how the people who used them thought, and what they thought about. But the reality is, “significant dates” in the Mayan calender probably have no more real significance than similar dates in our own calender. The transition between 1999 and 2000, for instance, had great cultural significance, but the reality is, nothing really significant happened. There is no real reason to believe the Mayan calender is any different.

There are a couple of other aspects of the Mayan calender that fascinates me however, aspects not really represented by the chart above. The Mayans didn’t stop at b’ak’tun when they measured time. The notion of “creations” described above each span 13 b’ak’tun or about 5100 years, but they went even farther than that. Higher level cycles called Pictun, Calabtun, and other, even longer periods are marked by their own units as well, as shown in the following table.

Days Long Count period Long Count period Approx solar years
2880000 = 20 B’ak’tun =1 Pictun 7885
57600000 = 20 Pictun = 1 Calabtun 158000
1152000000 = 20 Calabtun = 1 Kinchiltun 3 million
23040000000 = 20 Kinchiltun = 1 Alautun 63 million

from http://webexhibits.org/calendars/calendar-mayan.html

There are a couple of things that strike me as interesting about this table. First of all, it strikes me as fascinating that such an ancient culture was thinking in such grandiose temporal terms. Its only been in relatively recent times, through the scholarship of science, that western thought has really begun thinking about time spans so long. Prior to the development of modern geology and paleontology, western thought really had no conception of time beyond thousands, or perhaps tens of thousands of years. And yet, some 2000 years ago, a stone-age culture was thinking in terms of millions, and billions, of years.

Studying ancient calender systems can often tell us things about the people who used them, and the same is true for the units they choose, and the cycles they measure. Typically, the creation of a certain unit of measurement tends to indicate that measurements of that quantity are made on a fairly regular basis, and that it is reasonably common to work with such quantities and multiples thereof. It really makes no sense to develop a unit like Alautun, that spans 63 million years, unless it is reasonable to think in terms of 10, or even 100 alautun.

The second thing that struck me as interesting about all this deals with the specific length of one Alautun. For some reason, when I first read the 63 million year number, it struck me as very familiar, but it took a post from a friend on a wholly different subject to clue me in. We were having a discussion on Extinction Level Events, and my friend posted a list of events from the past, which I am posting below from Wikipedia.

  1. 65 MY ago — at the CretaceousPaleogene transition (the K/T or Cretaceous–Tertiary extinction event) about 50% of all species became extinct. It has great significance for humans because it ended the reign of dinosaurs and opened the way for mammals to become the dominant land vertebrates. In the seas it reduced the percentage of sessile animals to about 33%. The K/T extinction was rather uneven — some groups of organisms became extinct, some suffered heavy losses and some appear to have got off relatively lightly.
  2. 200 MY ago — at the TriassicJurassic transition (the Triassic-Jurassic extinction event) about 20% of all marine families as well as most non-dinosaurian archosaurs, most therapsids, and the last of the large amphibians were eliminated.
  3. 251 MY ago — at the PermianTriassic transition, Earth’s largest extinction (the P/Tr or Permian-Triassic extinction event) killed 53% of marine families, 84% of marine genera, about 96% of all marine species and an estimated 70% of land species (including plants, insects, and vertebrate animals). The “Great Dying” had enormous evolutionary significance: on land it ended the dominance of mammal-like reptiles and created the opportunity for archosaurs and then dinosaurs to become the dominant land vertebrates; in the seas the percentage of animals that were sessile dropped from 67% to 50%. The whole late Permian was a difficult time for at least marine life — even before the “Great Dying”, there was level of extinction large enough to be included in the “Big Five”.
  4. 360 MY ago — near the DevonianCarboniferous transition (the Late Devonian extinction) a prolonged series of extinctions eliminated about 70% of all species. This was not a sudden event — it lasted perhaps as long as 20 MY, and there is evidence for a series of extinction pulses within this period.
  5. 444 MY ago — at the OrdovicianSilurian transition two Ordovician-Silurian extinction events occurred, and together are ranked by many scientists as the second largest of the five major extinctions in Earth’s history in terms of percentage of genera that went extinct.
  6. 488 million years (MY) ago — a series of mass extinctions at the CambrianOrdovician transition (the Cambrian-Ordovician extinction events) eliminated many brachiopods and conodonts and severely reduced the number of trilobite species.

From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ELE

Compare the dates of the events above with multiples of Alautun. The first event, the extinction of the dinosaurs some 65 million years ago, corresponds very closely to 1 alautun ago. The second event is listed as 200 million years ago … again, 3 alautun represents about 189 million years. The third event is listed as 251 million years ago, and 4 alautun is equivalent to about 252 million years. #5 shows as 444 million years ago, and 7 alautun corresponds to about 441 million years.

We really have no idea what ancient Mayans were measuring with Alautun … our knowledge of their culture is far too limited to even speculate really. But it strikes me as remarkable that one of their units of measurement so closely approximates major geologic transitions identified by modern science. There may very well be no correlation between the two data-sets, but coincidence in history very often points common causes underneath. Regardless, no matter what Mayans were measuring in Alautun, given that we have only recently started thinking in such grandiose terms, as a result of a great deal of scholarship, theory, and science, isn’t it very remarkable to find the same sorts of thought in a culture that used stone tools, and never developed the wheel? And isn’t it even more remarkable to see a unit of time from such a culture that so closely approximates major geologic transitions that took us a great deal of science to identify?

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One Response

  1. Thank you for that post. I agree totally that the Mayans were measuring time in millions of years. I am not sure if you are familiar with the Earth Chronicles series by Sitchin but his 4th book “The lost realms” has some really interesting theories and reseach on where they learned to count that high!

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