Maya history rewritten as archaeologists make stunning find of earliest-known calendar

The inscribed mural fragments of the newly identified calendar were discovered from the remains of the Templo de Las Pinturas (“the paintings”) in the pyramid complex of San Bartolo in northern Guatemala. The site is best known for different murals, intricate paintings that are interpreted as human beings and various deities from Mayan mythology, with themes that include scenes from the life of the maize god, the coronation of a Mayan monarch, and four kings performing sacrifices. of blood. These murals date from around 100 BC. C., about 200 years after construction on the base of the pyramid is believed to have begun, but about 150 years before the complex was completed.

In their study, Mesoamerican art and writing expert Professor David Stuart of the University of Texas at Austin and colleagues analyzed 11 of the hieroglyphically inscribed wall fragments unearthed at the Las Pinturas site between 2002 and 2012.

Radiocarbon dating of twelve samples of charred wood found in the surrounding layers of sediment allowed the team to date the fragments to between 300 and 200 BC. C., which makes them about 150 years older than the other murals in the San Bartolo complex.

The researchers noted that one of the fragments in particular appears to represent the date “7 Deer” in the 260-day ritual calendar known to have been used in Mesoamerica.

The glyph features the number seven in dot-and-bar notation, placed over the outline of a deer’s head.

In the so-called “Classic” period that follows the construction of the San Bartolo complex, Mayan scribes rarely used the deer glyph.

This, Professor Stuart and colleagues said, suggests that this particular fragment comes from an early stage in the development of Maya writing.

As his script developed, a phonetic hand sign eventually emerged to replace the deer glyph.

According to the team, the fragments are the product of a mature writing and artistic tradition operating in the region by the 3rd century BC.

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The “Mayan calendar” is in fact a series of calendar systems that employ various counts of different lengths.

These included the 260-day “Tzolkʼin” cycle and the 365-day Haabʼ count which together form an approximately 52-year cycle called the “Round of the Calendar”.

To identify dates over longer periods of time, the Mayans also used a “long count” linear calendar that marks the number of days from a mythical creation date which translates to August 11, 3114 BC. C. in an extrapolated Gregorian calendar.

It was the course of the thirteenth “Bʼakʼtun”, a subdivision of this calendar of approximately 394 years in length, that supported pseudoscientific claims that the world was going to end sometime around December 21, 2012.

According to various archaeologists, the Mayans did not actually attribute any omen of doom to this date, and would have treated it as we consider the passing of, say, a new century.

Instead, the notion seems to have derived from a misinterpretation of the partially damaged inscription on a tablet found at the Tortuguero excavation site in Mexico.

Indeed, Professor Stuart has previously concluded that this text was instead referring to the end of the 13th Bʼakʼtun as a way to better contextualize an event in its present.

This rhetorical flourish, known from other Mayan inscriptions, could be considered the opposite of how, for example, we wrote in 1969 that Concorde’s maiden flight came some 65 years after the Wright brothers made the first powered flight.

The Mayan calendar system in general shares many similarities with the calendars used by other Mesoamerican civilizations, including those of the early Olmec and Zapotec peoples and the later Aztec and Mixtec cultures.

The full findings of the new study were published in the journal Progress of science.

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