An illustration of the ancient Maya calendar. Yayimages.

The Ancient Maya Calendar Is Much Older Than Initially Thought

The oldest known Maya calendar was believed to date back to around 2,000 years ago. However, a new discovery suggests otherwise.


A recently published study in the journal Science Advances offers evidence that the ancient Mayan calendar may be older than previously thought.  Researchers discovered that several Mesoamerican structures were built based on a specific solar orientation, coinciding with sunrises on specific dates. By analyzing the characteristics and alignment of several ancient sites, which date from between 1,100 and 750 BC, the scientists found that the present monument’s patterns coincide with 260 days, 13 numbers, and 20 symbols used by the Mayan calendar to measure time. This would mean that the cholq’ij, or “order of days” in Maya, would be at least 3,000 years old.

Last year, researchers from the University of Texas reported finding a Mayan calendar dating back at least 2,000 years in an excavation at the San Bartolo archaeological site in southwestern Guatemala. However, the new discoveries would push back another millennium, the date predicted by researchers at the University of Texas, which until now was considered the oldest, reports El Clarin. According to Professor David Stuart, the researcher who discovered the ancient calendar at San Bartolo, the new results present “good, strong evidence that the Mayan calendar had its origins long before we had the actual written evidence.” In late 2021, Takeshi Inomata published the largest LiDAR archaeological survey to date, known as LiDAR 3D.


LiDAR is an extraordinary tool that has helped archeologists make new discoveries that weren’t possible before. LiDAR works by sending laser light to the surface, which is then reflected from objects. The reflected lich is picked up by the system and used to create maps. In a past study, Inomata analyzed areas of the southern coast of the Gulf of Mexico. He found 478 Mesoamerican monuments, most of them unexplored, explains El Clarin. Intrigued by the find, archaeologist Ivan Šprajc contacted Professor Inomata with the intention of collaborating in the study of 415 of the structures. After three months of studies, scientists discovered that, on most occasions, the orientation of ancient sites was linked to sunrises on specific dates and that 90% of the structures had architectural landmarks. This allowed scientists to locate the sunrises on February 11 and October 29 of the Gregorian calendar, whose spacing range is adjusted to the 260 days of the Mayan calendar.

“The oldest of these complexes dates to around 1100 BC, at a time known as the Formative period, suggesting that the 260-day calendar is at least as old,” the researchers explain in the study. It is well known the ancient Maya relied on the alignment of the stars, the architectural features of buildings, and other natural landmarks to build time measurement instruments, reports El Clarin. Furthermore, other of the monuments studied by the researchers also presented regular patterns. In some cases, the orientation of the complexes coincided with sunrises with intervals of 130 days, that is, half of the Mayan calendar. Others presented spaces of 13 or 20 days, such as the number of numbers and symbols used by the cholq’ij.


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Written by Ivan Petricevic

I've been writing passionately about ancient civilizations, history, alien life, and various other subjects for more than eight years. You may have seen me appear on Discovery Channel's What On Earth series, History Channel's Ancient Aliens, and Gaia's Ancient Civilizations among others.

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