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Primary sources of Maya history - part four

Ronald A. Barnett ©

In the last column we looked briefly at the history of the decipherment of the Maya hieroglyphic writing system and some of the modern myths about the ancient Maya propagated by certain popular writers, such as J. M. Jenkins ( Galactic Alignment theory) and J. Argüelles ( Dreamspell Calendar). My purpose was not simply to discredit these popular writers but to try to separate fact from fancy and ask ourselves what we really know about the ancient Maya and how we know that we know, or think we do. The "mysterious" Maya have been the subject of more wild speculations and bizarre theories than perhaps any other people in history. In my view, the decipherment of the Maya script - although still not quite complete - is by far the most important breakthrough in our knowledge of the ancient Maya.

In 1973, a group of prominent Maya scholars gathered for the First Palenque Round Table to see if they could discover "some more history in Palenque's hieroglyphic texts." Based on previous "breakthroughs," this meeting proved to be a turning point in Maya hieroglyphic and historical studies. With a combined effort the researchers managed not only to identify a number of Maya kings but also to connect their lives to the specific buildings they had commissioned and in which they had left messages about their marriages, kingdoms, and wars of conquest.

The main body of hieroglyphic texts comes from the Lowland Maya area, including Yucatán, Chiapas, and the Petén. We have evidence of earlier hieroglyphic writing in ancient Mexico from the Oaxaca area and an Epi-Olmec text on Stela 1 from La Mojarra in southern Veracruz, but nothing to compare with the texts from such sites as Tikal, Palenque, Copán, and the like. It is estimated that close to 85 percent or so of these texts can be "read" or at least interpreted correctly. Differences in emphasis still exist but there is general agreement on how the texts should be read. The script itself, which consists of main signs and affixes combined in various ways, is read from top to bottom and left to right. However, the details of decipherment are beyond the scope of this article. Here we shall take for granted the accuracy of most of the readings so far and concentrate on the calendrical and historical content of the inscriptions on the stelae (stone monument markers) and buildings, although inscriptions on ceramics are also important sources of Maya history.

The Maya numerical system and calendar notations were among the first to be deciphered because Maya priests and scribes were particularly concerned with accurate time keeping for sacred as well as secular purposes. Consequently, the Maya system of dating events in their history is fairly well understood within its own cultural context. Chronology, the logical sequence of events, is of prime importance in both western and Mesoamerican historiography. However, in dealing with the Mesoamerican concept of history, we also have to take into account not only linear time but also cyclical time where western logic may not apply. However, in order to place Maya history in a world-wide context we need to know the corresponding dates in both the Mesoamerican and western European calendar systems.

The Correlation Problem, as it is called, involves the historical connection between Maya and Christian dates. How do we know, for example, that the notation (Thirteen baktuns, zero katuns, zero tuns, zero uinals, zero kins in the Maya notation) corresponds to the year 3114 B.C. (give or take a year) in our current Julian-Gregorian calendar? This is the hypothetical starting date of the current Maya Era destined to end in or around A.D. 2012 (with what some think will be dire consequences for the human race. But that's another story). How do we arrive at these figures?

Some researchers claim that the current correlation most often used, the so-called Goodman-Martinez-Thompson (GMT) correlation, is still provisional. The Spinden Correlation, for example, differs from the GMT by 260 years. It is generally agreed, however, that the basic Correlation Number for converting Maya dates to European dates should satisfy a number of astronomical and ethnohistorical conditions, such as data from the Venus table in the Dresden Codex and Bishop Landa's 16th century records on the subject.

To understand the problem, let us review a few basic facts about the Maya calendar. Most Mayanists agree that the present Maya Era (ME) began on or about August 10, 3114 B.C. from year one elapsed time. This is an important difference between the Maya calendar and our own. Unlike our own New Year celebrations, the Maya began their New Year from ground zero. In our system we begin from number one, so that a child is said to be one year old when in fact it is really in its second year. The discovery of the concept of zero was one of the great intellectual achievements of the ancient Maya.

Let us assume for a moment that the GMT Correlation is the most accurate. The zero date for the start of the present ME would then be expressed in Maya notation as (See above) or 13 baktuns. Without going into details about the values of each time period, let us keep in mind that the Maya counted in terms of 20s rather than 10s as in our system of reckoning. According to this correlation, therefore, 1 baktun would be the equivalent of 144000 days or about 394 years. 13 baktuns gives us a time cycle or ME of some 5122 years, which brings us close to the magical 2012 date for the ending of the current Maya Era, depending on how you do your math calculations. We aim for accuracy in our chronological systems but history is not an exact science. There is generally room for interpretation of the raw data of history.

The key to understanding all of this is the basic Mesoamerican two-calendar system: the sacred Tzolkin and the secular Haab. The Tzolkin contains 260 days made up of 20 day names (one Maya month) with the numbers 1 to 13 prefixed to the day name. Certain numbers, such as 9, 7, and 13 apparently had some kind of mystical or ritualistic value for the Maya. Number 13, for example, was also the number of the levels of the Maya heaven. Anyway, the Haab or yearly calendar contains 365 days made up of 18 Maya months of 20 days each plus a closing "month" of five days at the end of the year (18 x 20 +5 = 365 days).

A Maya date depends on the intermeshing of these two calendars. To complete the equation the Maya added two more pieces of information: the name of the day and the month in the two calendars. In Maya notation, therefore, the complete zero starting date 3114 B.C. of the present Maya Era would read: 4 Ahau 8 Cumku (i.e. Ahau is the name of the day in the 260-day Tzolkin and the number 4 is one of the 13 numbers attached to the 20 day names (13 x 20 = 260 days). Cumku is the name of the month in the 360+5 day Haab, along with its numerical coefficient 8 (one of the 18 Maya months).

The two calendars together designated the date of any specific day in the Maya calendar. Since the Maya began their time reckoning from zero, the Maya New Year began with 0 Pop (the name of the month). Therefore, if we begin with the day name 2 Ik on the Tzolkin and 0 Pop on the Haab and imagine the two calendar wheels intermeshing like two cogs of a wheel it will take 73 revolutions of the smaller Tzolkin calendar wheel and 52 revolutions of the larger Haab calendar wheel to return to the same combination of names and numbers, namely 2 Ik 0 Pop. In terms of our time-reckoning this translates into 52 vague years or the length of a basic time cycle in the Mesoamerican calendar. However, we know from the distance numbers in the hieroglyphic inscriptions that Maya priests and scribes were capable of visualizing much greater time cycles than the 52 year cycle. Indeed, some of their astronomical calculations into the distant past make the 12 to 14 billion year estimate of the "scientific" Big Bang theory of the creation of the universe seem like yesterday. Obviously mystical or religious motivations were involved as well.

Let us come down to earth again from the lofty astronomical and astrological realms of Maya calendrics and look at some concrete documentary evidence for the elusive Correlation Number which will allow us to make some sense out of all of this. Even at this level, it is difficult to sort out the "facts" because of the conflicting information available, thanks again largely to the destruction wrought by the Spanish Conquest of Mexico in the sixteenth century. Ironically, once again we are forced to turn to Bishop Landa, the man who did so much to destroy the Maya culture in Yucatán but who left us with one of the best primary sources of Maya history, his famous Relación de las cosas de Yucatán.

The trick, of course, is to find an exact correlation between the Maya and the Christian calendars as a starting point to put the Maya calendar dates in perspective. The documentary evidence is there but it requires real detective work to ferret out the clues. For example, in his Relación, which he wrote about 1566, Landa says the Spaniards arrived in Mérida in 1541, but according to the Chilam Balam of Chumayel it was 1542 when the Spaniards set up the district of Tihoo, Ichcanziho, the Maya name for Mérida. It turns out that such "errors" are common in Landa's book. The discrepancies are not all that great, sometimes a year or two out, but enough to cause difficulties in establishing an exact correlation between Maya dates and European dates. What went wrong? Landa was there on the spot and was able to consult directly with his Indian informants. If only he had got it right the first time he would have spared generations of Mesoamerican scholars and researchers the vexation of searching for the correct Correlation Number.

Landa himself perhaps provides the answer. In his explanation of the Yucatec Maya calendar Landa writes: "Pero aunque ellos comienzan su año en Julio, yo no pondré su calendario sino por el orden del nuestro y junto con el nuestro...." ("But even though they begin their year in July, I shall not set down their calendar except in accordance with our own and in conjunction with it..."). Apparently Landa was thinking in terms of the Christian calendar even while he was gathering information from his Indian informants about the Maya calendar. Accordingly, Landa begins his year with the usual January 1 date thereby throwing the Maya order out of sequence.

The remaining arguments are complicated and of little interest here, except to show the kinds of problems that arise in attempting to reconstruct the Maya concept of history. Perhaps the last word here can be safely left to Michael Coe, one of our most prominent Maya scholars. In his 5th edition of The Maya (1993) Coe confirms that two indisputable historical facts have now been verified with reference to the Correlation Problem. First, the late Yucatecan Maya calendar date 12 Kan 1 Pop is in fact 16 July, 1553, in our calendar. Landa got that right at least! Secondly, astronomical confirmation has been found in the Venus tables of the Dresden Codex, a pre-Hispanic hieroglyphic manuscript containing much information on Maya ritual based on astronomical observations. For example, the Maya associated the movements of the planet Venus with their 260 day sacred calendar. The correlation has since been further verified by astronomical observations that correspond to the date of the great battle scene in the house of murals at Bonampak, Chiapas. We now know that the battle took place on 6 August, A.D. 792 according to our calendar.

The task of reconstructing Maya history is a long and painstaking process involving specialists in many different fields, such as archaeology and linguistics. Unfortunately for the general public, the underlying research is often of a highly technical nature accessible only to specialists in the field. The writer who attempts to bridge the gap between academic or technical writing and the popular press runs the risk of fire from the public for being too obscure and from the academics for not going into enough detail. In any event, the ancient Maya did not create their calendar for the benefit of modern research scholars or the entertainment of the general public. We have to take the evidence as we find it and try to deal with it on its own terms.

Published or Updated on: July 1, 2006 by Ronald A. Barnett © © 2006
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