Why the Maya used a 260-day calendar

Last night I attended a lecture by Vincent Malmström who, in 1973, published a paper in Science proposing an answer to the mysterious (and still controversial) question: Why did the Maya use a 260-day calendar?

Malmström’s 1997 book Cycles of the Sun, Mysteries of the Moon, which he has also made freely available here, tells the whole story from his point of view. It’s a remarkable tale of geography, religion, culture, computation, science, and human foibles.

The Maya actually used three different calendars. The Tzolk’in ran on a 260-day cycle, and the Haab’ used a 365-day cycle. Then there was the Long Count, which counted days since a mythical beginning of time and also included the other two.

The Long Count’s start date was written, in its full form, like this:, 4 Ahau 8, Cumku

The first five digits measure days in units of 144,000, 7,200, 360, 20, and 1. 4 Ahau is a Tzolk’in day, based on a cycle of 13 numbers with a cycle of 20 days names. 8 Cumku is a Haab’ day, based on 18 20-day months.

Today’s date is, which Wikipedia’s Long Count page helpfully computes for you using this markup:

Today, {{CURRENTDATE}}, in the Long Count is {{Maya date}} (GMT correlation)

(Here GMT doesn’t stand for Greenwhich Mean Time, but rather for Goodman-Martinez-Thompson.)

But today might be, according to this calculator. There has, evidently, been epic confusion and controversy about whether the mythical start date was 584,283 or 584,284 or 584,285 days ago. Thompson originally thought 584,285, then changed his mind and decided on 584,283.

Prof. Malmström likes 584,285, which fixes the start date as August 13, 3114 B.C. Why? Thompson didn’t think there was any astronomical basis for the 260-day calendar, but Malmström figured there had to have been. And he wondered where, in that part of the world, you might observe a 260-day astronomical cycle.

It turns out that at latitude 14.8 º N, the sun is directly overhead on August 13 passing southward, and again on April 30 passing northward, an interval of 260 days. August 13 is also the day after the peak of the Perseid meteor shower. Malmström writes:

The signs were therefore unmistakable. First the heavens would give their notice. All night long the skygazer would watch as stars burst from behind the towering mountains to the northeast and flashed across the sky. And the following morning, as the sun arched higher and higher across the heavens, he would watch as the shadow it cast grew steadily shorter, until, as the sun reached its zenith, its shadow completely disappeared. This then, he decided, was the day for his count to begin.

Why count days? If you’re planting maize, you need to calibrate carefully to the arrival of the monsoon rains. The two solar passages correspond roughly to the beginning of the rainy season at the end of April, and the harvest in mid-August.

Note that these passages, and the associated latitude 14.8 º N, don’t apply to the Maya in the Yucatán Peninsula, but instead to an earlier Olmec civilization to the southwest, on the Pacific coast near what is now the border between Mexico and Guatemala. The Mayan new year was July 26, not August 13. But the 260-day calendar predated the Mayans by a millenium.

Just a few decades after its inception, the 260-day “sacred” calendar was augmented by a 365-day “secular” calendar. The problem was that the sacred calendar didn’t quite work. There were 13 20-day cycles — or 20 13-day cycles — during the sun’s southward passage, and what seemed like 8 more 13-day cycles during the northward passage. So when the calendar started running, things seemed to work out — albeit in a delightfully curious way.

Each time the zenithal sun passed overhead on its way south, a new 260-day cycle would begin on a day numbered “1” but with a different name. Thus, the skygazer watched as the beginning of each successive cycle shifted from “1 Alligator” to “1 Snake” to “1 Water” to “1 Reed” and then to “1 Earthquake.”

That didn’t last long, though.

Where the priest had erred, of course, was in concluding that the cycle of the sun could be measured in 28 “bundles” of 13 days. This meant that he had equated its annual migration through the heavens with an interval of 364 days, when in actuality it took about a day and a quarter longer than that. Thus, after only four years had elapsed his count was already off by 5 days. This might go unnoticed by the commoners at first, but certainly, as the error increased with each passing year, it wouldn’t be long before “the cat was out of the bag.”

What a colossal screwup! I like to imagine the priests furiously backpedaling.

OK, wait, I know we said 260, but it’s really 365, but we’ll keep both, don’t worry, it’ll work out, trust us, we know what we’re doing.

Of course the fun never stops. We’re less than two years away from Y That’s in 2012, on Dec 23. Or on Dec 22, or Dec 21, depending on which correlation constant you choose. On one of those dates the world will end. Or not. Prof. Malmström suggests you choose 584,285. That’ll give you two extra days to put your affairs in order.

For more on the endlessly weird human reckoning of time, see A literay appreciation of the Olson/Zoneinfo/tz database.

11 thoughts on “Why the Maya used a 260-day calendar

  1. The backpedaling analogy is very funny – sounds true because it sounds exactly like what happens at work monthly!

  2. This kind of speculation is interesting but it is not based on archaeology. Figures like Malmström like to blend New Age pseudo-astronomy with ancient history in compelling ways. However, there are several clear holes in the argument that you repeat:

    1) There is no hard evidence that the Olmec used a calendrical system comparable to the Maya’s.

    2) We don’t have any way to pinpoint historical start dates for the use of the long count, the tzolk’in or the haab. Evidence of calendar use is dependent on extant stone monuments that were not destroyed by natural or cultural forces in the several thousand years that have elapsed since their creation, which means such evidence is an accident of preservation and does not suggest a causal order. This means that there is no evidence that there was “backtracking” of any kind.

    3) The assumption that the 260 day calendar was based on the celestial phenomenon described above is compelling, but not verifiable. As you point out, there are many theories for this calendar, such as the fact that 260 days corresponds roughly to the 9-month human gestation period and this ritual calendar was thus meant to correlate human with agricultural fertility.

    4) There is nothing in the archaeological record that suggests the end of the 13th baktun cycle ( will see the end of the world. This is a New Age myth.

    one last note… our Gregorian calendar also has incongruous interlocking elements. why do we have 7-day weeks that do not divide evenly into a 365 (sometimes 366) day annual calendar?

    just a skeptical archaeologist’s food for thought. i still find theories like this fascinating.

  3. a New Age myth

    I know. He was just kidding about that, and so was I.

    There is no hard evidence that the Olmec used a calendrical system comparable to the Maya’s.

    So is the assertion that the calendars predate the Maya by 1000 years based solely on unwinding their calendar backward? Or on the creation myth? Or both?

    1. So is the assertion that the calendars predate the Maya by 1000 years based solely on unwinding their calendar backward? Or on the creation myth? Or both?

      the start date is determined by backing out the calendar to the date, which as you mention places the origin in the 4th millenium bce. this is well before the Olmec or the Maya and (so the story goes) places the origin of Maya civilization in mythic time. in the Late Classic period of the Maya, a ruler at a site called Quirigua riffed on the long count and created new orders beyond the baktun which increased mythic time by several orders of magnitude, projecting Maya civilization several hundred million years deeper into the past and future… so even the long count wasn’t a static concept.

      there’s confusion because the earliest monument with a long count date comes from the Olmec heartland, but dates to around 30 bce, well after the Olmec civilization had dissipated.

  4. there’s confusion because the earliest monument with a long count date comes from the Olmec heartland, but dates to around 30 bce, well after the Olmec civilization had dissipated.

    Really interesting, thanks.

    So in your view is there also no hard evidence for the 365-day calendar arriving shortly after the 260-day calendar was found lacking?

    1. i’ve never heard that before, but it’s an interesting idea. i’d have to look into what kind of evidence there is for that claim. i’ve been out of the Maya studies game for a while!

      1. I’d be curious to know what you think. It’s all laid out in the book I cited, which is freely available online.

        Among other things, he marshals a lot of info about linguistic diffusion — it’s nothing I’m competent to evaluate, but seems intriguing.

  5. Here’s a far fetched explanation: “What if thousands of years before the peak of the Mayan empire, the earth actually had a 260 day year?” Imagine a celestial event or cataclysm that either affected the earth’s rotation on its axis or the speed of the earth as it orbited the sun. All history would have been lost but the 260day calender would of remained because it was the one thing everyone knew. As time progressed, the elders could of held the 260 day calender sacred; perhaps not even knowing why; and created a 365 day calender that would fit the new time frame. Ancient Hindu scripts speak of a technologically advanced civilization with Vimana’s (flying machines) as well as weapons of mass destruction who’s descriptions ironically resemble the effects of today’s nuclear weapons. The thing is, we dont really know what our past may hold.

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