The Mayan Long Count is a calendrical system used by the Maya civilization during the classic period between AD 200 and AD 909—in fact its use defines the Classic period in Maya chronology.
Interestingly, the earliest documented dates of the Mayan Long Count calendar system predate the classic period and are outside of the Maya region. They date to between 35 BC and AD 36, and have been found at Chiapa de Corzo and Tres Zapotes in Mexico and el Baul in Guatemala. Therefore, say scholars, the Long Count was probably invented sometime before the 1st century BC by the Mixe-Zoque, residents of the isthmus region of central America, and the descendants of the Olmec civilization.
The Mayan Long Count is traditionally called that, because it was first recognized at Maya sites. And, it was the classic period Maya who adopted it, enhanced it and used it more than anyone else in Mesoamerica.
How the Mayan Long Count Calendar Works
The Maya Long Count was an innovation by the Mixe-Zoque, combining the earlier cyclical Mesoamerican Calendar with a new linear method of counting days. Cyclical calendars are structured along recurring events, such as seasons of the year, the growing cycles, passages of the sun and moon, and solstices and equinoxes. In addition, the cyclical Mesoamerican Calendar kept records for the recurrence of feasts, performances and rituals which supported, in a sense, the recurrence of the seasons.
The two parts of the Mesoamerican calendar are the 260-day sacred calendar and the 365-day solar calendar, and combined they make a cycle of 52 years. This system had unique day names for a period of 52 years, after which time they had to reuse the names again.
In constrast, the Maya Long Count's cycle is about 5,200 years long, and it is considered linear because it has a designated starting point or base point. Nonetheless, it too will run out of unique day names. The end of the current Maya Long Count cycle will occur late in the year 2012.
Establishing the Base Date for the Mayan Calendar
Scholars (starting with Eric Thompson in the 1920s) are agreed that the year 0 for the Mayan Long Count was set by the Mixe-Zoque inventors as what we would call 3114 BC. However, they are divided as to the exact month and day. Most agree to a date between August 11 and 13, but some argue for as late as September 8, 3114 BC. Scholars believe the Mixe-Zoque priest-scholar-scribe who came up with the method set an arbitrary start date into the distant past. The reasons for this particular are unknown.
What that scribe did do is use the number 13 as a guideline to fix the number of cycles that would be included before the calendar would be reset. The scholar used the going mathematical system of base twenty to establish a cycle (or baktun) of 144,000 days, and he multiplied that number by 13, a sacred number to Mesomerican societies. The 13th bactun ends on December 22, 2012; then, following the traditional numbering method, the numbering system starts again.
The Maya never said that the end of the 13th baktun would be of great importance to them, marking the end of the world. For one thing, they never got close enough to the end of the cycle to worry about it unduly. It has been historically documented that the end of the 52-year Mesoamerican Calendar cycle, there were many fears about the end of the world, and rituals were established to fend this off. But since the Long Count calendar dropped out of use at the close of the Maya classic period, in 909 AD, it's difficult to know what the Maya would have thought of an event so far in their future.
Mayan Long Count and Political Power
One of the things rarely written about in the popular press is the use of the Long Count calendar for political uses. The calendar was used to set the seat of religious power among the Maya cities of the Yucatan, with the seat of power changing every k'atun, or about every 20 years, called the k'atun seat. During the late postclassic and colonial periods, the k'atun seat was the home of a chief priest, where tribute was collected, public office was affirmed and titles to land legitimized.
Archaeologist Prudence Rice has argued that knowledge of time was part of the power base for the kings of the Maya. Having secret knowledge of the way time works and therefore controlling the cosmos allowed the kings to maintain social order and their exalted place in society. Necessarily, a king's retinue included astronomer-priests who would protect that knowledge. See Rice's article listed below for further information on this fascinating subject.
New Age and the Mayan Long Count
As December 2012 begins to loom in the distance, there has been an increasing discussion in books, movies, and the Internet and other media about the coming end of the world which was "predicted" by the Mayan Long Count. All of this discussion takes place outside of the archaeological science and cultural history of the Maya themselves: these stories often includes prophecies of the return of putative alien ancestors, something we westerners have brought to the party. This discussion is about 30 years old or so, and it started outside of the Maya people themselves.
Aveni, A. 2009. Apocalypse Soon? What the Maya calendar really tells us about 2012 and the end of time. Archaeology 62(6). Free to read online.
Clark JE, and A Colman. 2008. Time Reckoning and Memorials in Mesoamerica. Cambridge Archaeological Journal 18(1):93–99.
Marcus J. 2006. Mesoamerica: Scripts. p 16-27 in: Brown K, editor. Encyclopedia of Language & Linguistics. Second ed. London: Elsevier.
Marcus, J and KV Flannery. 2004. The coevolution of ritual and society: New 14C dates from ancient Mexico. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 101(52):18257-18261. Free download.
Rice PM. 2009. On Classic Maya political economies. Journal of Anthropological Archaeology 28:70–84.
Sitler RK. 2006. The 2012 Phenomenon New Age Appropriation of an Ancient Mayan Calendar. Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions 9(3):24–38. Free download