Tuesday, October 4, 2016


This is a difficult topic. If you want to start an argument among scholars, simply raise questions such as: Who originated the Mesoamerican calendars? And: When did they do it? Each academic will espouse her or his favorite theory of origins; in reality, we don’t know for sure.

One fact of which we can be almost certain is that the most important calendars – the 260-day tzolk’in or chol q’ij, the 365-day solar calendar or haab, and the famous Long Count – all took shape in what is now the far south of Mexico, on or near the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. There are three principal candidates for the invention of the calendars.


For many years, the Olmecs (1200-400 BCE) – who sculpted the well-known “colossal heads” – have been called “the mother culture of Mesoamerica.” Even this much has become debatable.  We call them “the mother culture” because no earlier cultures have been discovered. Almost all the important traits of Mesoamerican civilization have been attributed to the Olmecs, including the ritual ball game, the ceremonial use of jade, the construction of pyramids, and the worship of Feathered Serpent. It is easy to imagine that they created the 260-day tzolk’in or sacred calendar as well – and it is very possible that they did. But we don’t know for sure. The earliest inscription which is very clearly a tzolk’in date comes not from the Olmec region but from the Zapotecs of Oaxaca in the 6th century BCE. In the same way, it is quite possible that the Olmecs invented the unique Long Count Calendar, though once again the earliest Long Count date occurs elsewhere.


In recent years, the site of Izapa has gained a great deal of attention. Located in the blazing hot lowlands of Soconusco, on the Pacific side of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, Izapa is an early site which has been called “proto-Maya” – which means that we are not sure whether they were Maya or not. The stelae at Izapa contain some of the first images of stories from the Mayan Creation Epic and can easily be recognized as such by any reader of the Popol Vuh (written some 1800 years later). But without texts, we simply don’t know if the Izapans spoke Maya.

Early researchers into the Mesoamerican calendars realized that 260 is the number of days between one solar zenith passage and another at 15 degrees north latitude. Did the zenith passage play a role in the origins of the tzolk’in? Some scholars have been skeptical; it was long believed that there was no site – Mayan or otherwise – at that latitude which was early enough and sufficiently sophisticated to have made such astronomical observations. But Izapa is at 15 ° north, and it has now been shown that Izapa is much earlier than we thought. The ruins that are visible on the ground date to about 100 BCE, but aerial x-ray photography has revealed that there is an entire city lying underneath what we can see. Archaeologist Garth Norman sank a trench and examined artifacts from the ancient city, which seems to go back all the way to Olmec times, c. 1000 BCE. Based on additional astronomical evidence, Vincent Malmstrom believes that the tzolk’in began in Izapa in 1358 BCE.


Archaeologist Prudence Rice believes that the tzolk’in is actually much older. Some of the names for the days of the tzolk’in change radically from one culture to another. For example, the day sign which is known as Darkness (Yucatec: Akbal) in the Mayan languages is known as House (Calli) in Nahuatl. But there are other day names – notably those of the animals – which remain constant, even in societies which spoke languages from completely different families. Rice speculates that the tzolk’in may have originated before the separation of the Mesoamerican proto-languages. This separation took place before 2000 BCE during the Archaic Period, when the first village societies developed in Mesoamerica. In support of her theory, Rice draws attention to the village of Paso de la Amada, also in the Soconusco and quite close to Izapa. Archaeologists have noted that Paso de la Amada contains structures which date to c. 1650 BCE and were built to measurement units of 13, 52, and 20. The ball court, one of the earliest known, measures 52 x 13. This implies that not only was the tzolk’in kept by these village farmers, but the 365-day year and the 52-year Calendar Round as well.

Rice draws attention to the fact that all the evidence for calendrical beginnings seems to point strongly to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Izapa and Paso de la Amada lie at one side of the isthmus; the Olmec cities lie at the other. All the animals which appear in the names of the days can be found there. But archaeological knowledge of the Isthmus remains incomplete; very little is preserved in such extreme humidity, and the overwhelming heat makes excavation difficult or occasionally impossible.  

In 2010, however, the oldest temple pyramid tomb in Mesoamerica was discovered at Chiapa de Corzo, in the center of the Isthmus. It contained the body of a sacred king, and it dates to 700 BCE, placing it in Olmec times. Clearly, three of the earliest Mesoamerican high cultures – the Olmecs, Izapa, and Chiapa de Corzo – developed on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, which is still known for its surviving matriarchal societies among the indigenous people.

It is interesting to note that the earliest Long Count date – 36 BCE – was also found at Chiapa de Corzo.

The origins of Mesoamerican civilization are still incompletely known. New research, especially on the Isthmus, is likely to change our picture of the beginnings of civilization in the region. All we can say at this point is that no matter how far back we search, the tzolk’in seems to have been there.

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