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The Ancient Mayan Calendar - How did the Maya People Count the Days?

Updated on February 3, 2012

Mayan Art

I think this is just amazing art!
I think this is just amazing art! | Source

Counting Days for the Mayan People

There are so many dates found on different Mayan stelae, and more seems to be found even in recent years. It was to the degree that at one point, scholars thought the Mayans maybe worshiped time itself. They have found that to not be the case however. The more I learn about how archaeologists read the ancient texts that we are fortunate to have access to at all, the more I am amazed. Stelae continue to tell us a lot, and those intricately carved stones and pillars are beautiful works alone.

One of the best ways to understand more about the Mayan Calendar, is to know how the Maya counted their days. It is rather different from the ways in which we count our own days. Why they counted their days the way they did, is a topic all its own.

Many scholars don't agree on what the reasons were for the Mesoamericans to be fixed on a 260 day cycle of time measurement.  There are some theories that include being based on the observations of the movement of Venus and the Sun.  There is a gap of time that somewhat corresponds to when they saw Venus as the evening star, to when it emerges as the morning star.  So the 260 days could have been based on something like that.  The Sun has an annual southward movement, then 260 days until it returns North when viewed from where many of the Maya were.  In the latitude close to the Copan, this is the case for example. 

We do know the maya were close watchers of the celestial movements.  We are told the likely may have planted according to such things, as well as harvesting their crops.  It may have even started that way, and over the centuries it could have turned into something rather hallowed to the Maya.  They seemed to tie it all into a divine rhythm, with fertility being an underlying or key component. 


Human Rhythms are important to the Maya

Human life rhythms are thought to be a possible component as well.  In fact, most modern scholars lean toward that as being the cause for the 260 day cycle observed by the Maya.  We mean the cycle of life, including things like how midwives counted from a last menstrual cycle for a woman in their prediction of when a baby would be born.  This is still true even today in the in the mountain regions of Southern Guatemala.  So this 260 day calendar has proven to be an invention that is long lived, as it is still used by some even today.  This calendar is also used by the inhabitants of Quiche.  They live in the tropical mountain areas in southern Guatemala.  

El Tajin, Mexico

I think this is just amazing from the Maya.  One side gives a clearer view of the 365 niches.
I think this is just amazing from the Maya. One side gives a clearer view of the 365 niches. | Source

Older Picture of El Tajin

This is an older version of the same thing.  It would be interesting to know the history behind it all.
This is an older version of the same thing. It would be interesting to know the history behind it all. | Source

The Maya Long Count, What is it?

The Mayan long count is a unique way of counting days, as we see recorded on stelae, from a particular point in time.  So we see the Maya not using only both the 260 day calendar and the similar 365 day calendar, but the Mayan Long count as well.  This "long count" was a system refined by the Maya.  It was used in many parts of Mesoamerica, especially around the first millennium BC.  During the time period known as the Classic period, which dated between 250 - 900 AD the Maya used this system to put dates on Monuments.  You can find amazing examples of this at places like El Tajin, Mexico.  There is the Pyramid of the Niches there that has 365 niches which is spectacular!  Supposedly each niche represented one day of the solar year. 

The Maya used the Long Count to record all kinds of things, like births, deaths, and there is a lot of recordings for royalty.  You could find out when royalty first came into their role, and it recorded anniversaries were marked, etc.  There were recordings of things like major triumphs in battles, and of ritual sacrifices and more. 

Basically, the Long Count counts forward from a zero date.  For the Maya, this was 4 Ahua 8 Cumku.  To understand that better, it is the equivalent for us of August 11, 3114 BC in the Gregorian Calendar.  Its fascinating to understand exactly how it works.  They counted the days in units of 20, and their year was 360 days.  There were five units and I will explain those in more detail below.

Quetzalcoatl, using attributes of the Wind God Ehecatl.
Quetzalcoatl, using attributes of the Wind God Ehecatl. | Source

What were the 5 units in the Mayan Long Count?

You might see a date recorded by the Mayan people that looks something like, for example.  How are we to understand that date exactly?  There are 5 units of time from the zero date of 4 Ahua 8 Cumku shown there.  These 5 units are as follows, and their actual amounts of time shown:

Baktun = 144,000 days (the first number above in that list of 5, would be two of these Baktun)

Katun = 7,200 days (the second number, and so on)

Tun = 360 days

Uinal = 20 days

Kin = 1 day

So the date of would be recording 2 Baktuns, 2 Katuns, 3 Tuns, 2 Uinals, and one Kin.  Adding up those days gives us the date from the zero point, being 303,521 days to record something important.  That is just an example, and now I am wondering if there was anything special that happened 303,521 days after August 11, 3114 BC. 

Dates like would be carved into a Calendar Round in a particular position.  These calendars were a combination of the tzolkin and the haab calendar.  Its been enlightening for the world to find out what the Maya were trying to communicate as more breakthroughs in understanding hieroglyphics have been made.   

Generally speaking, the long count date is carved just once on a stela.  In the tzolkin calendar, you would see other things recorded such as more details about a king.  

You can find information about the moon also carved on some stelae.   You may find some scholars referring to dates as the Initial Series, or the Lunar Series on the stelae. 

Some things to look for if you want to find out more about these things include, The 20 Maya Day Names, The Glyphs for the 19 Maya Months, The Mixtec Codex, and El Tajin Mexico (Pyramid of the Niches). 

Pyramid of the Niches Location, and Tulum Mexico

El Tajin, Mexico:
El Tajin, Ampliación Oscar Torres Pancardo, Coatzintla, Veracruz, Mexico

get directions

Tulum, Mexico:
Tulum Municipality, Quintana Roo, Mexico

get directions

Veracruz, Mexico:
Veracruz, Mexico

get directions


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    • oceansnsunsets profile imageAUTHOR


      6 years ago from The Midwest, USA

      Unvrso, thank you! I feel the same way, that it must have been quite a sight to behold to look up into the night sky the way the Mayans did so long ago. It really is amazing, their accomplishments, and so long ago. Thank you for your comment and vote!

    • unvrso profile image

      Jose Juan Gutierrez 

      6 years ago from Mexico City

      Great hub! It must have been an amazing to observe the night sky as the ancient civilizations did. Their astronomical accomplishments are outstanding given the fact that looking at the night sky was their main entertainment, just after dark.

      Voted interesting!

    • oceansnsunsets profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from The Midwest, USA

      Thank you Pamela, I really appreciate that. :) I am learning more too about the Maya, and they are very interesting for sure.

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 

      7 years ago from Sunny Florida

      This hub is full of great information about the Mayan culture. Voted/Rated up.

    • oceansnsunsets profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from The Midwest, USA

      Hi Crystolite, thank you for the comment, and I agree it does resemble the pyramids. Its so fascinating that people across the globe and in different centuries did some things so similarly.

    • crystolite profile image


      7 years ago from Houston TX

      Wonderful info in here but so much love the photo of that El Tajin Mexico because it looks so much like a pyramid.

    • oceansnsunsets profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from The Midwest, USA

      Wow, that is great information and the books sounds like something I would be very interested in, so thank you! Yes, it would be SO great to meet up there on 12/21/2012! I would so be there if I could. Appreciate that so much, thanks again. :)

    • Austinstar profile image


      7 years ago from Somewhere near the center of Texas

      Oh gosh, just think of the crowds going to Chichen Itza for the fall equinox in 2012! Better book a flight now! I'm currently reading an e-book on Google Books (free) called The American Egypt by Channing. It's fascinating. It is the log book of a couple of Englishmen traveling through the Yucatan peninsula in the late 1800's or early 1900's. There are some B&W photos that show what the ruins looked like a hundred years ago. Amazing!

      I don't really know how to recommend the book other than go to Google Books and create an account and search for the book, then add it to your library. This was something new for me, reading ebooks on Google for free. But this book is really fascinating so I'm glad I found it. It's 361 pages of the early Yucatan and includes some insights into the Maya of that time. Did you know they never surrendered? Either to Spain or Mexico. At one time the Yucatan tried to be annexed to Texas!

      Well, maybe we should make a pact or something to meet there on 12/21/2012. It's going to be a big party for sure!

    • oceansnsunsets profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from The Midwest, USA

      Russell, I think its rather exciting that Tulum keeps turning up new things we can learn from. I have heard of that Millionares club, btw, but never been there for my time there was too short. I would love to travel back there however and at least see the resort. I would love to know more of what you know about that place and all these things. Thanks for stopping by!

    • oceansnsunsets profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from The Midwest, USA

      Dallas, so glad to hear that, thank you!

    • oceansnsunsets profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from The Midwest, USA

      Sligobay, you put a smile on my face, lol! I hear you, I know that I am learning a lot that is for sure. They were far ahead of their time in many ways. Thank you for stopping by and for the comment.

    • oceansnsunsets profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from The Midwest, USA

      Hello Austinstar, and thank you very much! Yes, the Maya are amazing, and its exciting to me to hear about how they are still finding out more all the time. I agree, and its very cool to see what we will learn in the future.

    • Russell-D profile image


      7 years ago from Southern Ca.

      Great interpretation of a much researched subject in Mexico. Having spent tourist and professional time in the Tulum area, more finds continue to add to our knowledge stream. Now if the drug lords don't kill off all the researchers...there is much more we have to learn. Stay with it. In Tulum, did you ever stay in what was once known as the Millioneer's club? It's just North of Tulum. Lots of good reasoning was expounded there in the old days. Now, it's an apartment beach resort. David Russell

    • dallas93444 profile image

      Dallas W Thompson 

      7 years ago from Bakersfield, CA

      Enjoyed. Flag up!

    • sligobay profile image


      7 years ago from east of the equator

      I think that this is a great article. I hope that I can figure all of this Mayan time calculation before the world ends next year. LOL

    • Austinstar profile image


      7 years ago from Somewhere near the center of Texas

      So many people think the Aztec calendar was the original. It was not. The Aztecs merely copied from the still vital Maya.

      I believe there is much more still to be discovered in the jungles of Quintana Roo, Belize and Central America.

      Really nice art!


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