The Maya calendar dates back further than previously recognized, a mural more than 2,220 years old reveals. The finding probably indicates other aspects of Maya culture also originated at least 150 years earlier than has been acknowledged.
The Maya calendar achieved a brief moment of global fame when (false) rumors swept the world that it predicted planetary collapse in the year we know as 2012. Once that year came and went with nothing more to show for it than a truly terrible disaster film interest moved on, although some might argue recent events indicate the Maya were merely a few years early.
However, this understates the calendar's significance, being part of the emergence of the only deciphered writing system indigenous to the Americas and highly sophisticated mathematics. This makes its origins of great interest to anthropologists. Reported in Science Advances, excavation of the Las Pinturas pyramid complex demonstrates these had occurred by the Christian calendar's third century BC.
Las Pinturas, in San Bartolo, Guatemala includes some of the most important surviving murals from preclassical Maya culture. The most famous part, which depicts aspects of Maya origin mythology, dates to about 100 BCE. However, the pyramids were built in seven stages, and the foundations have only been explored since 2002. There, archaeologists have found even older art that, based on radiocarbon dating and hieroglyphic style, they have dated to between 300 and 200 BCE.
Among the items painted on the walls of the pyramid's foundations is a deer head with the Maya number 7 painted above it. “Its form indicates that it is a date record in the Mesoamerican 260-day calendar, '7 Deer,'” Professor David Stuart of the University of Texas, Austin and co-authors write. “Here, it appears to be in an initial position, perhaps as part of a caption for an accompanying scene or a human figure, now lost.”
A 260-day calendar may make little sense to outsiders' eyes, but it was used throughout central America in ancient times, composed of 13 cycles of 20 days. The calendar was so deeply embedded in the culture that it has survived five centuries of colonization and cultural repression to still be used by some Indigenous populations today. Each day in a cycle shared a name with an animal or thing, with the pairing of 7 with a deer (Manik' in Maya) surviving for millennia. However, Manik' could also be a “year bearer”, helping to indicate a specific year in a 52-year cycle.
Whether marking a day or a year, the authors are confident the 7 Manik' symbol indicates the earliest surviving representation of the Maya's calendar some 150 years before an abundance of inscriptions appeared both in Maya and Zapotec culture. A handful of earlier example has been claimed, some dating as much as 400 years before the Las Pinturas symbol, but in this paper the authors question either the age, or interpretations of those symbols as calendar related.
The Las Pinturas deer, on the other hand, demonstrates the calendar was already well established by the time of its painting. “The mural fragments document a robust scribal tradition with multiple hands and styles of writing that demonstrate a local community of scribes,” the paper notes. This in turn demonstrates the calendar's antiquity and resilience.