A calendar older than Mayan

The time of sowing and flooding, or for game breeding -- the seasons of the year -- have always been important to mankind because human survival depended on them. However, the calendar is not merely the prose of life, it is also its poetry, the magic by which we try to control reality and assert our rule over time. That is why, thousands of years ago, human beings were building and erecting specifically oriented structures, which today are visible only from a bird's eye view. And what's more, people were creating their own time counts, shorter than our 365-day-long year.

Time is running out, eternity awaits". So says the motto written on the sundial painted on the wall of the parish church of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Wadowice. Located near Kraków, the town is a far cry from Mesoamerica, the site of the recent sensational discovery of the oldest pre-Columbian 260-day calendar.  Clearly, the quotation had significance even for cultures so distant from one another in time and space.

Every culture tries to encapsulate the time measurement in some shape or form. Sometimes it can be small, a sundial for instsance, yet it can also be epicly huge, like the 260-day calendar, that was created along the coastline of the Gulf of Mexico. More recently, a "pocket" version was discovered in the form of a fresco on the wall of a pyramid in Guatemala.

The discoveries attest to the fact that people then were capable of measuring time even without the cold certainties of a scientific background...

The world of the sky is characterized by regularity, rhythmicity and harmony whereas our earthly one is a place of chaos and disorder. Harnessing reality through the measurement of time itself, including times of day and of the yearly seasons, became feasible thanks to observation of the skies, something that has occupied humans since time immemorial.

French research on non-pictographic signs in Paleolithic caves in Europe, that were decorated like cathedrals by our ancestors anywhere between 12 and 30 thousand years ago, have recently stirred public opinion. Scientists have tried to prove that the oldest lunar calendar developed by homo sapiens is between 20 and 30 thousand years old. This means that the astronomical observations of the starry sky that enabled the creation of such a calendar were made without magnifying glasses (since there were none), by people who had yet to learn as much as how to smooth a stone well.

"It's hard to consider this a novelty, considering that as much was suggested more than 50 years ago by Alexander Marshack, who studied the linear incisions on bone objects from those distant centuries," I am reminded when discussing Mesoamerican calendars with Dr. Stanisław Iwaniszewski of Warsaw’s State Archaeological Museum and Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia.

"The bone fragment from Abri Blanchard, dated to approximately 31 thousand years BC, originating from the Aurignacian culture, is considered to be the oldest find. According to Marshack, this stems from a calculation based on recording the phases of the moon. Each mark on the surface of the bones would correspond to a day (or night), and their shape would roughly correspond to that of the Moon (waxing, full, or waning). Marshack identified 69 characters, corresponding to a period of two months and 10 days. In the 1970s, Boris Frolov's works on arithmetic and calendar records in the Paleolithic period were also famous," according to the archaeologist.
A stone version of the Mayan 260-day calendar. Photo: Matthew G. Bisanz, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia
What were the practical reasons for starting to measure time? In the past, archaeology insisted, building its theories, on the rationalism of the Enlightenment and the Marxist concept of the great agrarian revolution, calendars and gods were needed solely by agricultural peoples. In essence, there is a time for plowing and a time for harvesting – and it is better not to confuse them. However, the discovery in Göbekli Tepe -- likely a "socio-cultural" or even "socio-religious" centre dating back to at least 12,000 years ago located along the Turkish-Syrian border -- certainly challenged  this  hypothesis. There are no traces of agriculture in the area, just a gigantic complex of stone structures decorated in such a way that modern archaeo-astronomers have been able to identify images of constellations of celestial bodies significant to humans, who probably congregated at the site on a regular basis. However, as Stanisław Iwaniszewski reminds us, "this is not well-established knowledge, since many works fail to take into account the effects of precession and falsely attribute to the constellation images what at that time would have been in an incorrect position in the sky." Also, our European wheat originates from this area, yet no traces of advanced agriculture have so far been discovered in Göbekli Tepe. Even so, it cannot be ruled out that the population also gathered there to celebrate because of the harvest.

  Close by Göbekli Tepe, lies the similar but smaller archaeological site of Karahan Tepe, with its structure of stone stelae dating back 11.4 thousand years ago. There, on the central facade of the whole construction, as if emerging from the rock face, the phenomenon of the "play of light" has been noticed during the winter solstice. Perhaps similar surprises await us at Göbekli Tepe, where only a small percentage of the stone buildings that were deliberately buried underground have been excavated. It is, after all, an accepted fact that since Paleolithic times, it has been standard practice rather than the exception to arrange megalithic structures in such a way that the light of the rising or setting sun would "paint" on them at specific significant astronomical times (e.g. solstices, equinoxes). We know such phenomena from Stonehenge, Newgrange, Carnacu, Chaco Canyon, Mnajdra, the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Pyramid of El Castillo in Chichén Itzá and many others.

Do we need more evidence that humans have always sky-watched and that this has always served to help them keep track of time? And yet we are still surprised when the media reports on such archaeological discoveries. Those who consider our ancient ancestors to be "ape-men" who subscribed to the idea that the Earth was flat cannot grasp that they could know anything "about the rotation of the celestial spheres" in the absence of appropriate optical devices and modern mathematical apparatus. By the way, Copernicus didn't have a telescope either, because it was only Galileo who worked on its improvement. And today, in order to understand these ancient calendars and clocks, we need very complex technology to facilitate seeing our earthly world plus AI support to analyse the images obtained. It is funny. Below I will write more about the modern research method that made it possible to discover the great calendar in the Gulf of Mexico.

A 260-day year

First though, let these three archaeologists surprise us: David Stuart of the University of Texas at Austin, Boris Beltrán of Skidmore College in New York State, and William Saturno, who represented Boston University during this excavation. They intensively researched fragments of wall paintings of the Las Pinturas pyramid complex near San Bartolo, Guatemala, dating from some 2,250 years ago. These pyramids were erected in stages. As a result, fragments of older structures that had been damaged in various places would remain hidden inside, under a new layer. Thus, while the date of construction of the visible elements of the complex could be readily established, the older walls remained safely hidden in the form of large fragments that are being excavated and analyzed.

This is how fragments of the calendar painted between 300 and 200 BC were found on a wall later demolished by the Maya. To be precise: two matching pieces of wall rubble contained two dots painted over a line above a deer's head. This symbol, known as the "Seven Deer", represents one of the days in the 260-day calendar. In 2022, the scientific journal "Science Advances" declared this discovery to be considered the oldest known material fragments of the Mayan sacred calendar. Come the time the wall was demolished, the painting had already aged well, a clear indication that the Guatemalan calendar had been in use for many years.

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According to the Mayan calendar, the world was supposed to end on December 21, 2012, threatened the pop culture "sages" (not scientists). Such a conclusion was made by the so-called Long Count, one of the three parts of the Mayan calendar. Accordingly, our December 21, 2012, in the Mayan reckoning, was day 4 Ahau 3 Kankin. The calendar seems complicated, because the names do not match our language, but the difficulty is ostensible.

In the basic ritual and divinatory part of this calendar called tzolkin, each day had its own name and number. It was a combination of numbers from 1 to 13 and the names of 20 days -- in sequence: Imix, Ik, Akbal, Kan, Chicchan, Cimi, Manik (this is the deer discovered in the Guatemalan pyramid), Lamat, Muluc, Oc, Chuen, Eb, Ben, Ix, Men, Cib, Caban, Eznab, Cauac and Ahau. The cycle started with 1 Imix and ended with 13 Ahau, after which the numbering restarted every 260 days.

The ritual calendar was correlated (but not synchronized) with the secular solar haab calendar, and dates were usually given in both systems. Thus each day had two names and two numbers. The identical configuration of both dates occurred after 18,980 days, i.e. our current 52 solar years. As an analogy, we can give our system of calendar notation, consisting of a week (seven-day cycle) and an annual reckoning based on 12 months, for example, the aforementioned December 21. If we're still here, the world didn't end on that day. But it does not mean that the Mesoamerican calendar is imperfect, but that we are susceptible to conspiracy theories and believe round or "magically repeating" dates as extraordinary signs.

The calculation of time created in Mesoamerica therefore consists of three parts. The first is a 260-day ritual calendar (named tzolkin -- it is its fragment that was discovered in Las Pinturas). Second is the calendar called haab in the Classic Maya period (250 – 900AD), and later tun. It consistes of 360 days. The third is the aforementioned "Long Count", which during the winter solstice 10 years ago gave many people a heart attack. There are different theories about the creation of tzolkin because the 260-day cycle was also used to record the orbital cycle of Venus (the planet is visible in the sky in the early morning for 263 days, then it disappears behind the Sun for 50 days, and then again appears in the evening sky for 263 days), as well as to record eclipses, and to mark the cycle of Mars (similarly to Venus).

Until now, it was believed that the Mayan calendar was widely used in the pre-Hispanic period (i.e. from the 3rd century AD) until the Spanish conquest. The Guatemalan discovery pushed the physical evidence, at least for the tzolkin, back some 500 years, and the story is far from over.

Laser maps of the "underground"

I've also talked with Dr. Iwaniszewski about the latest discovery,  which was reported in the "Science Advances" at the end of January this year. Three different archaeologists: Ivan Šprajc from the Research Center of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts, Takeshi Inomata from the University of Arizona, and Anthony Aveni from Colgate University have found huge structures along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. They were built thousands of years ago and sited in such a way that, given the right amount of sunlight at specific astronomical times, they can act as a 260-day calendar.
The names of the days in the 260-day calendar and their corresponding hieroglyphs. Photo: printscreen of the table from Wikipedia/Mayan_Calendar
This was discovered thanks to modern research technology, the so-called "LiDAR archaeology", which uses data from laser scanning the Earth's surface, This methodology enables the creation of a three-dimensional model of what is visible on the surface and what is not visible -- e.g. either covered by forest or sunken. LiDAR (English acronym for Light Detection and Ranging) works similarly to radar, only instead of microwaves it measures the surroundings with laser beams. The scanning can be satellite (SLS), airborne (ALS) or terrestrial, using mobile scanners placed on vehicles (MLS) or static devices mounted on tripods (TSL).

The laser is connected with a telescope and sensitive cameras. Otherwise it would be an ordinary rangefinder such as those used by surveyors or construction workers. The device measures distances: the reflection of laser light and its scattering. If something "sticks out" or "sinks" on the scanned surface, the light wave changes the angle and time of return to the sensor, and sometimes even the length. These data allow the creation of very accurate, three-dimensional surface maps. So what exactly did the analysis of these images reveal in the Gulf of Mexico?

Of the numerous buildings and ceremonial sites identified along the southern coast of the bay dating from 1,100 BC to 250 AD, 414 were analysed. "They are situated in such a way that their walls face east, where the sun rises on the horizon on February 11-12 and October 30-31, both dates being 260 days apart. Since we are dealing with many similar orientations of monuments in later periods, and we know that they were associated with the 260-day ritual calendar, finding these orientations in the pre-classical period may prove the antiquity of this calendar," Dr. Iwaniszewski explains.

The dating shows that the tzolkin calendar was developed at least 800 years prior to when it was painted on the plaster frescoes in one of the oldest of the Guatemalan pyramids of Las Pinturas. However, Prof. Iwaniszewski emphasizes that the oldest material trace of the presence of glyphs of the 260-day cycle are the panels painted in the Oztotitlán cave (Guerrero state in south-western Mexico on the Pacific Ocean). They were created between 900 and 500 BC. Among other things, researchers there identified a day corresponding with the day 6 of the Aztec Calendar named Wind. This mean that tzolkin existed before it was ever recorded. It appears that it was also recorded in the gigantic structures of the bay, which today are only visible as bulges in the ground. This means that at the very least the ritual part of the Mayan calendar should be called the Olmec calendar, since it was they who were living in Mesoamerica 3,500 years ago and they built these structures. The beginnings of the Mayan civilization date back to only 2,400 years ago (400 BC).

According to Prof. Iwaniszewski, such research has its origins in much earlier scientific theories. And clues that the 260-day calendar is much more ancient were already to be found in Alfred Siemens’ description of the positioning and location of farmland in the state of Tabasco (the area also analyzed in the "Science Advances"), which was published in the 1980s. These fields were oriented in the same way as structures that were since discovered using the LiDAR method. It had previously been believed that the direction of crops was the result of natural factors, but now it may turn out that they followed earlier structures.

Moreover, at the beginning of the 21st century, John Clark carried out measurements at many Mesoamerican sites in searching for units of measurement that might have been used by ancient builders. Analyzing the dimensions of the buildings in Paso de la Amada, the researcher concluded that the builders used multiples of 13, 20, 52, 260, 365, numbers that made sense when linked to the 260 and 365-day cycles. These site constructions were built between 1,700 and 1,300 BC, i.e. in the pre-Olmec period. The Olmecs appeared at the Pacific around 1,350 BC, while the measured structures (e.g. a football field) were built a bit earlier, around 1,400 BC.

The names of the days in the 260-day cycle also suggest that the cycle was used in Mesoamerica in the second half of the 2nd millennium BC, a conclusion derived for some time now on the basis of so-called linguistic dating, which determines when a word had a chance to appear in a given language, having also existed in some form in other related languages.
Olmec Head No. 3 from San Lorenzo Tenochtitlán (1200–900 BC). Photo: Maribel Ponce Ixba (frida27ponce). Flickr, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia
According to Prof. Iwaniszewski who spent years on archaeological research in Mesoamerica, it is clear that "what for us is only a calendar, ritual or divinatory, was, for the inhabitants of pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica, a philosophy of life. He explains: "The naming of days and their combination with numbers is a mnemonic for the ritual expert who communicates the fortune and related recommendations to his community. The appearance of the next day informs the soothsayer about the state of the cosmos -- the numbers and names of days describe the structure of the world at a given moment. Of course, the 260-day cycle can be used to count time, but its divinatory nature causes individual days to be perceived as different in quality. That is why the information about the use of this cycle in the 2nd millennium BC is so important to us. This is another example of the fact that in the tropical zone the counts of time were shorter than our annual cycle.”

Whatever a cycle may be, one has to measure time. "For happiness to come to us, you need good timing " -- if only for this purpose, indicated by this simple logic. Time is very difficult to comprehend. Children learn much faster how to indicate correctly that something is under, above, in front or behind them than they master how to use the terms "yesterday" or "tomorrow". Time eludes us, we are lost in it, it imprisons us… We see it as something much greater than ourselves. We cannot imagine its beginning. We are afraid of its end. The calendar is a way to tame this monster. We can lock time in some form and completely control it and that allows us not to be afraid of a real monster for a moment.

– Magdalena Kawalec-Segond

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

– Translated by Agnieszka Rakoczy
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