What is the Mayan Calendar?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

The Mayan calendar is a complex system of time-tracking developed by the Mayan civilization of Mesoamerica. The calendar actually uses several different cycles, or methods of keeping track of time according to astronomic or mythic events. Although the Mayan calendar was not the only calendar in use by the ancient civilizations of Central and South America, many experts consider it the most advanced, and a clear indication of the scholarly emphasis in Mayan culture.

The Mayan calendar was developed by the Mayan civilization of Mesoamerica.
The Mayan calendar was developed by the Mayan civilization of Mesoamerica.

The most commonly understood Mayan calendar is called the Tzolk’in. This calendar divides a year or cycle into twenty sections of thirteen days, each with an associated spiritual figure. The year is 260 days, although the understanding as to why a cycle lasts that long is unclear. Some believe it is related to the length of pregnancy, the length of time between planting crops and harvesting, or that it is due to the importance of the numbers 13 and 20 in Mayan culture.

In addition to the Tzolk’in cycle, a connected solar cycle called the Haab’ was used. This calendar divided the year into 18 months with 20 days each, and an additional five unnamed days at the end of the year. The calendars were used in conjunction, so that any specific day identified by both the Tzolk’in and Haab’ methods would only occur once in a 52 year cycle. Instead of counting the years in number, this conjunction is believed to have been used as an accurate description of a date.

For periods longer than 52 years, an additional calendar method was developed called the Long Count. This allowed determination of extremely long periods, and is often found carved on Mayan monuments. From what anthropologists can tell, the Long Count began approximately on 11 August 3114 BCE, according to the Gregorian calendar. Since there is no evidence that the Long Count is meant to be repeating, some believe that the Mayans expected the world to end at the completion of the Long Count cycle, which will be in 21 December 2012. According to some popular astrologers and New Age thinkers, it is on this day that an apocalypse or similar revolutionary global event will take place.

The Mayan calendar is a window into an ancient world, one that Western authorities long and mistakenly believed was a primitive and barbaric place. Instead, as investigations into early Mesoamerican culture have continued, archeologists and anthropologists continue to turn up evidence of highly advanced societies that rivaled or surpassed their Western contemporaries. The complexity of the Mayan calendar tells experts quite a bit about their culture: for example, that they were astronomers. It also suggests an awareness of societal longevity; the Long Count clearly shows that the Mayans knew they would be around for a while.

Pre-Columbian Mesoamerica remains shrouded in mystery, no matter how many temples we discover or artifacts we find. It is interesting to reflect on the possible influence the culture would have asserted had Western imperialism and clan wars not destroyed much of the civilization. The discovery and understanding of the Mayan calendar is a precious piece of information, worth study and scholarly pursuit, and an open door into a mist-shrouded history that experts still try valiantly to understand.

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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Discussion Comments


O.K., so for you market followers, yearly charts of the DOW are a measure of human productive capacity. Regardless of what it is, we are at a turning point of some sort. Prior to the industrial revolution, we had a commodities boom, and when that busted, it fed the manufacturing boom (low commodities prices as inputs into manufacturing). When the manufacturing boom busted, it equivalently fed the industrial revolution (cheap labor), the industrial revolution turned labor into skilled labor and increased knowledge which increased technology dramatically.

Now, they said technology would hurt us and that is why it should be implemented slowly into the economy and we had a huge tech boom. Well, you can only get so productive with technology and the stock markets are a gauge of mass production. The more and more you increase technology, it's productivity decreased; it's called diminishing marginal returns.

All the growth since the 60's has been due to technology, so what now? Is this why the government is doing everything it is doing, for a New World Order? Republic? Pretty crazy. If technology were to become non-productive, its sole existence would be pointless in terms of economic thought. Now, If technology/industrial revolution were to bust completely, what then would that feed? I don't think that would feed anything. Our entire lives have led up to technology. Movies like “The Matrix” and “Terminator” have been hinting at this demise.

If this bubble were to bust, let's speculate for a moment: technology would then become very cheap (this has been happening. Go buy a laptop and you'll see). It will keep dropping in price until it knocks tech giants out of the game, who cannot produce when marginal revenue is below fixed costs. This would help level off the tech prices and leave the big guys in. What would this feed? Another self-fulfilling technology cycle where people buy cheap technology to make more technology that renders itself useless.

I think the Mayans used Elliott Wave Theory and predicted this trend based on human productive capacity and the capacity for natural self-sabotage. Not a doom and gloomer – just a logical person trying to find the truth.


most people now are freaking out, knowing something will happen on dec 21, 2012, from the Mayan calendar predictions. But if you're a Christian and believe in the Bible, the Holy Bible rules out any sort of freakish events that are going to happen. Read Matthew 25:13.


I agree with closerfan12, I think it's more interesting to focus on the history surrounding the Mayan long count calendar rather than the predictions of the end of the world.

I mean, just consider all the knowledge that had to go into making the Mayan calendar -- the astrology aside, it's a fascinating work of art and science.

I think it's amazing that people so long ago, whom we usually assumed to be cro-magnon style cave men, could produce such an amazing work of art, science, and simple practical use.

Though the future is of course important, I think it's more productive to look to the past -- and that's something that the Mayan calendar can spell out for us without any spooky predictions.


I keep hearing people talk about the whole Mayan calendar doomsday prophecy, but what exactly is that? I thought that the calendar just ended, how did that get translated into the end of the world?

Can anybody tell me in a calm, rational manner about the significant of the Mayan calendar ending, and how that is relevant to the end of the world?


I'm really glad that you focussed more on the historical aspects of the Mayan calendar than the whole Mayan calendar end of the world prophecy thing.

I guess I just think it's a shame that such an interesting historical artifact is being twisted around to freak people out, when the fact is, there's really no factual basis to believe that the Mayan calendar (the long count one) spells out the doom of humanity.

People have been finding things that supposedly mark the end of time for literally centuries, and thus far, unless I missed the memo, the world has not ended.

Good for you for avoiding getting caught up in the whole Mayan calendar 2012 prophecy hype and providing a good, clear, interesting article about this amazing civilization and artifact.

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