An ancient site in Guatemala has turned up a fascinating find: the oldest known Mayan calendar.
The calendar was discovered in a complex of pyramids painted with murals that is known as San Bartolo. It was on a pyramid known as Las Pinturas that archaeologists spotted what they believe is notation for a Mayan calendar. The find was announced in a new study in Science Advances by David Stuart, Heather Hurst, and their colleagues.
The wall paintings at Las Pinturas are from the Late Preclassic period (400 BCE to 200 CE), when the Maya’s first societies were on the brink of collapse. Those societies went on to bounce back during the Classical period. It was during the Preclassic era that Mayan script systems were being developed.
Amid the hieroglyphic texts adorning the murals of Las Pinturas comes a single date: 7 Deer. This hieroglyphic is the earliest known evidence of the Mayan calendar. Much of the remaining mural was destroyed, so it is not known what the date referred to or if it was accompanied by other dates.
The Mayan calendar has 260 days, and each day is demarcated with two elements, the paper explains. The first element is a number from 1 to 13 paired with 1 of 20 days, each of which carries a name that refers to animals, the elements, and other aspects of nature.
The date 7 Deer is a particularly special, according to Stuart and Hurst.
Their study notes that across Mesoamerica, the seventh day is consistently associated with the deer. “The meanings were often similar across languages, forging a calendar system that came to be an elemental factor in the definition of “Mesoamerica” as a cultural region,” the paper reads. “For example, the word for the seventh day in Nahuatl is Mazatl (“Deer”) which corresponds to Zapotec China (Deer), and Mixtec Cuaa (Deer) … The diverse writing systems of ancient Mesoamerica reflect this widespread meaning, nearly all showing a deer’s head for the seventh day.”