A major rethinking of the origins of the two primary calendars used by the ancient lowland Maya, proposing that the calendars developed about a millennium earlier than commonly thought.
In Maya Political Science: Time, Astronomy, and the Cosmos, Prudence M. Rice proposed a new model of Maya political organization in which geopolitical seats of power rotated according to a 256-year calendar cycle known as the May. This fundamental connection between timekeeping and Maya political organization sparked Rice's interest in the origins of the two major calendars used by the ancient lowland Maya, one 260 days long, and the other having 365 days. In Maya Calendar Origins, she presents a provocative new thesis about the origins and development of the calendrical system.
Integrating data from anthropology, archaeology, art history, astronomy, ethnohistory, myth, and linguistics, Rice argues that the Maya calendars developed about a millennium earlier than commonly thought, around 1200 BC, as an outgrowth of observations of the natural phenomena that scheduled the movements of late Archaic hunter-gatherer-collectors throughout what became Mesoamerica. She asserts that an understanding of the cycles of weather and celestial movements became the basis of power for early rulers, who could thereby claim "control" over supernatural cosmic forces. Rice shows how time became materialized—transformed into status objects such as monuments that encoded calendrical or temporal concerns—as well as politicized, becoming the foundation for societal order, political legitimization, and wealth. Rice's research also sheds new light on the origins of the Popol Vuh, which, Rice believes, encodes the history of the development of the Mesoamerican calendars. She also explores the connections between the Maya and early Olmec and Izapan cultures in the Isthmian region, who shared with the Maya the cosmovision and ideology incorporated into the calendrical systems.
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- List of Figures and Tables
- Note on Orthography and Dates
- 1. Introduction
- Popol Vuh, a Maya Creation Myth
- Time and Preclassic Mesoamerica
- Chiefdoms and Cycles
- The Early Maya and the Isthmian Region
- 2. In the Beginning: Early Mesoamerican Prehistory
- Early Occupation: The Paleoindian or Lithic Stage
- The Archaic Stage
- The Archaic-to-Formative Transition
- The Early Mesoamerican Tradition
- 3. Mesoamerican Calendrics: Time and Its Recording
- The 260-day Calendar
- The 360- and 365-day Calendars
- The Long Count and the May
- Origins of the Mesoamerican Calendars
- Recording Time
- 4. Maya Calendar Developments in Broader Context
- Originally Thirteen Months?
- Beginnings and Endings
- The Months and the Day Names: A Derivational Model
- Calendrical Origins and the Popol Vuh
- 5. Middle and Late Preclassic: The Gulf Coast Olmec and Epi-Olmec
- Architectural Patterns
- Monuments, Iconography, and Themes
- Discussion: Calendrical Implications
- The Epi-Olmec
- 6. Late Preclassic: Izapa and Kaminaljuyú
- Izapa, Chiapas
- Kaminaljuyú and Related Sites
- Discussion: Calendrical Implications
- 7. The Early Maya Lowlands: Origins and Settlements
- Origin Myths
- Archaeology: The Earliest Lowland Settlers and Their
- Archaeology and Architecture
- Archaeology and Exchange
- 8. Early Lowland Maya Intellectual Culture: Writing, Stelae, and "Government"
- Writing Systems
- The Stela "Cult" and Calendrics
- Ties to the Isthmus
- Leadership, Politics, and Government
- 9. The Materialization and Politicization of Time
- Development of the Calendars
- The Popol Vuh and Calendars
- Pilgrimages and Tollans
- Cycling: Chiefly and Calendrical
- Maya Calendars: Order, Legitimacy, and Wealth
- References Cited
In Maya Political Science: Time, Astronomy, and the Cosmos (2004), I explore a suggestion by the late ethnohistorian Munro S. Edmonson (1979) that Classic-period Maya geopolitics might have been based on the same structural principles that operated in the Postclassic and Colonial periods. The core structuring principle was the rotation of divinely sanctioned geopolitical capitals on a roughly 256-year cycle known as the may. Edmonson also suggested the possibility that Preclassic (or Formative) Mesoamerican societies might have observed may cycles, a possibility that I explore briefly in my text.
The present volume is both an outgrowth of Maya Political Science (MPS) and a "prequel" to it: an exploration of Maya Time with a capital T. While writing MPS I became fascinated with Maya calendars, particularly their beginnings. It is widely known that the Maya possessed astonishingly accurate systems of recording time (Time) in a series of intermeshing cycles. Today's archaeologists, however, not only take these achievements for granted, they consistently fail to incorporate the role of the calendar and calendrical celebrations into their interpretations of Maya history. Certainly, early twentieth century-style Maya calendrical studies have long been out of fashion: calendrical glyphs are now deciphered, the chronological position of the Maya civilization is no longer a significant archaeological problem, correlation issues are largely settled, and radiometric methods are available to date deposits not otherwise datable by inscriptions. But, perplexingly, examination of the calendars as expressions of deep-seated structural, cultural, and historical identities seems to hold little intrinsic interest for Mayanists (see P. Rice N.d.b). Questions about when, why, where, and how these instruments developed and what deeper meanings might be embedded are rarely if ever asked—not because the answers are transparently evident but because the questions themselves somehow do not seem to have been deemed pertinent. As I note in the preface to MPS (Rice 2004:xvii), scholars commonly pay lip service to the concept of Maya kings as "lords of time," but they have not examined what this might mean in an evidentiary or hypothetico-deductive sense: if Maya kings were indeed lords of time, then how does that structure our expectations about how this role might be manifest in the material record? Similarly, archaeologists, art historians, and epigraphers generally regard Maya rulers as embodiments of the sun—sun-god-kings—but how and when did such solar personification occur?
Such questions increasingly engaged me. Relevant information, speculation, and theorizing is scattered in a multitude of sources dating throughout the last century, but no effective synthesis exists. So as I worked on MPS, the masses of calendrical data and arguments that I was unable to include in that volume emerged as chapters for this one.
I was also intrigued by issues of early interactions between the lowland Maya and the cultures of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, which also are rarely addressed directly by Maya archaeologists and, until recently, rather unsystematically by art historians. Postulated relations between the Maya and the Olmec, and between the Maya and Izapa, have been debated, swinging from direct contact to no contact, and "influence" has generally been shown to lie in the area of language and kingly symbolism evident in iconography and art styles (see, e.g., most recently, Fields and Reents-Budet 2005a). For my part, I believe language and royal symbolism are profound structural components of key cultural transmissions and that they, plus calendrical knowledge, signify long and deep-seated relations between the Maya and the societies of the Isthmian region. And I argue that both shared in an early rotational geopolitical system based on the may.
I began writing Maya Calendar Origins at the same time I was working on MPS, envisioning the present book as setting forth the underlying story of the earlier one, that is, the changing relations of very early Mesoamericans with their environment and their development of a broadly shared worldview and calendars. In fact, many elements of this worldview (such as quadripartition) are widespread not only in Mesoamerica but throughout much of the New World, and some can be recognized in the Old World in Greco-Roman and Indo-European civilizations. This has led at least one author (Kelley 1974) to suggest that Mesoamerican calendars originated in the Old World around the time of Aristotle.
Such suggestions aside, my perspective in this endeavor is something like that of Rosemary Joyce in an article exploring the unintended consequences of the beginnings of monumental construction in Formative Mesoamerica: "People engaged in making these monuments and those simply witnessing the events would have experienced profound changes in spatiality, connection to place, and materialization of time at multiple scales as a result of the new constructions," she writes. "But these changes cannot automatically be taken as the intended consequences of these projects" (Joyce 2003:8). Similarly, but millennia earlier, I contend, people making the observations that eventually led to calendars, and those whose daily lives would have been guided by the mysterious machinations of celestial bodies, would neither have known nor intended that the Long Count and may-dominated political organization would be end-products of their efforts. But, it is undeniable that the course of Mesoamerican cosmology and epistemology was predicated on the early observations that led to the development of systematic timekeeping. Time was materialized—that is, transformed into various kinds of physical reality—as well as politicized, and these processes stand at the core of Maya Calendar Origins.
In this volume, I propose that some key elements of ancient Mesoamerican cultures, particularly those relating to time and calendrical celebrations, have histories of as much as a millennium before full dependence on agriculture, permanent settlements, and the appearance of carved monuments. This may strike some readers as wildly improbable if not impossible. But I believe that rejection of such a proposition is rooted in an ethnocentrism that makes it difficult for those of us in the technology-rich twenty-first-century world to believe that hunters and gatherers could have possessed a "scientific" curiosity and a rich intellectual culture. Moreover, for many of us in the United States—a nation-state with a formal history of little more than two centuries, an enthusiasm for change, and a mobile culture that has rendered extended-family living nearly extinct—it is also difficult to comprehend the existence of deep cultural traditions that choreographed family, community, and all of life for thousands of generations. A compelling example of such tradition, however, was most recently evident in the April 2005 election and installation of Pope Benedict XVI as head of the Roman Catholic Church, which followed rituals and displayed symbols that have endured without change over centuries.
To understand the role of time and calendars in ancient Mesoamerica and among the Maya in particular, therefore, it is necessary to set aside such ethnocentrism and shortsightedness and suspend disbelief while reading the following pages. I ask that readers be willing to "imagine something different," in the thought-provoking words of Shirley Malcom, winner of the National Academy of Sciences 2003 Public Welfare Medal.
Maya Calendar Origins begins with the premise that the origin of the Mesoamerican calendars is a topic worthy of, and amenable to, investigation. Even though calendrical origins lie in the very distant past, I believe it is more useful to admit the how and why of this matter to scrutiny than to dismiss these difficult questions as unapproachable. Further, I am convinced that it is possible to amass a corpus of scientifically plausible (admittedly not airtight) data about how and why the process of calendrical development might have occurred, and to use principles of parsimony to evaluate these data. This exercise is admittedly largely inductive, but the alternative to informed speculation and induction in this case is to ignore a truly interesting core issue in ancient Maya culture history.
In investigating calendrical origins, then, I find myself situated amid a lively debate among philosophers and historians of science about hypothesis "testing": what is the relative value of a posteriori hypotheses that accommodate data versus those a priori hypotheses that predict outcomes (Lipton 2005; see also S. Brush 2005; Rothchild 2006; Stanger-Hall 2005)? My position here, as in MPS, is that to begin investigation of such issues it is necessary to accumulate data from multiple sources in order to bolster a position or emerging hypothesis. Prediction comes later. Questions of Maya calendrical origins and their cultural value or "meaning" have been disregarded for the last half century; the salient issue for me, therefore, is not the technicalities of addressing them via a strict hypothetico-deductive method but, rather, simply to reopen them to meaningful investigation. Nonetheless, I have crafted an if/then proposition that I examine in the text: Given that my thesis is that the political power of early leaders was based on astro-calendrics, recording time, and demonstrating "control" over supernatural cosmic forces—"cosmo-political" power in Nancy Munn's (1992:109) terms—I propose that, if this is so, then we would expect that early objects of status and power should reflect calendrical and temporal concerns.
I should also comment here on my references to the Popol Vuh, the highland K'iche' Maya creation myth. As outlined in the chapters in this volume, I believe that this myth encodes the history of development of Mesoamerican calendars, and that the myth that we know today (Christenson 2003; D. Tedlock 1996) is the culmination of thousands of generations of reciting, rewriting, and performing this epic myth in song and dance. Some readers of early versions of this manuscript complained that the Popol Vuh is assuming an exaggerated role in interpreting the Classic lowland Maya cultural achievements, while others felt that I was distorting evidence to accommodate the Popol Vuh model. I cannot ignore the possibility that a kernel of truth might reside in both positions, but . . . let us "imagine something different": what if the Popol Vuh were the extant version of a very ancient myth, then what might we expect to recover archaeologically or iconographically?
Readers will note that my discussions address similar topics and reference the inspiring contributions of Linda Schele and David Freidel (most notably, Freidel and Schele 1988a, 1988b; Freidel, Schele, and Parker 1993; Schele and Freidel 1990), but I try to approach things from a slightly different angle. That is, I see those authors writing about the Classic Maya cosmos, creation, ritual, and rulership from an explicitly astronomical viewpoint, noting the relations between positions of planets, stars (especially Venus), constellations, the Milky Way, and so on, as they relate to rituals of creation and as the Maya would have experienced them in the night sky. I am less preoccupied with the explicit animation or personification of celestial bodies and their relation to Classic gods (à la Milbrath 1999) and more interested in the development of the calendars and their role in framing the legitimization, and rituals of legitimization, of kings and cosmic order.
Finally, I confess that in this book I am violating strong personal and professional convictions concerning the academic use of looted archaeological materials. As a former president of the Society for American Archaeology (1991-1993), founding editor of the SAA's journal Latin American Antiquity (1991-1994), and presidentially (William J. Clinton) appointed member of the U.S. Cultural Property Advisory Committee from 1994 to 2002, I fought vigorously in favor of legal action that would stop the importation of artifacts acquired without permits from their country of origin and opposed publication of articles about such artifacts in professional journals and other legitimizing venues. I have personally experienced the dire—even deadly—consequences of illicit excavations in the Maya area, and I abhor any and all activities that contribute to the desecration of the cultural patrimony of nation-states worldwide. I have taken considerable pride in my advocacy for protecting cultural heritage, but now I find myself in the awkwardly compromising position of needing to illustrate certain points about early Mesoamerican calendrics via unprovenienced Olmec and other materials. This was a personally difficult decision for me and I keep such illustrations to a minimum. I can only hope that my references to these artifacts constitute recognition of their singular contributions to understanding key aspects of Mesoamerican prehistory rather than being merely a shallow acknowledgment of their desirability as "collectibles."
Historical memory in Mesoamerica transcended the rise and fall of individual civilizations and reproduced the beliefs and icons of an enduring world vision founded more than thirty centuries ago.
David Freidel, Landscape and Power in Ancient Mesoamerica
For Mesoamerican peoples and especially the Maya, time and cosmic order were inextricably fused. But when and how were the ideas and structures relating to time, the cosmos, and social order developed and integrated? Those questions lie at the heart of this book. My answer, in brief, is that their development began thousands of years ago through observations of cyclically occurring earthly and celestial phenomena. Such observations culminated in a complex set of calendrical principles and associated mytho-ritual practice that established the context for rulership and power in Mesoamerica . . . and this ordered context endured for millennia. My arguments are situated in the general area of the "anthropology of time" (Munn 1992), with more specific reference to three quasi-theoretical, cross-cultural frameworks. One is the "materialization of ideology" (DeMarrais, Castillo, and Earle 1996) and its politicization, specifically, the interrelated concepts and ideology(~ies) of time, calendrics, and the cosmos. Second, I am interested in how the materialization and politicization of these ideological constructs were harnessed into principles of order, legitimization, and wealth (Baines and Yoffee 1998, 2000). Third, I am concerned with the ways in which principles of order, legitimization/power, and wealth were combined with concepts of geotemporal space, distance, and the crafting and trade of exotic goods (Helms 1988, 1993).
My arguments are also situated in several contextual themes. For example, some thirty years ago Michael Coe (1973, 1978) began arguing that Maya myths, such as the Popol Vuh epic (Christenson 2003; D. Tedlock 1985, 1996), provide significant insights into the colorful scenes painted on Classic lowland Maya funerary pottery. Other sources illuminate places and events of the Mesoamerican Classic period, including the late Yucatecan "prophetic histories" (Edmonson 1982, 1986a; Schele, Grube, and Boot 1995), Aztec origin myths (Boone 1991; Schele and Guernsey Kappelman 2001), and Colonial-period documents. Additionally, the roles of astronomy and, to some degree, calendrics in geopolitical organization and ideology among the pre-Hispanic Maya are gaining more attention among scholars (Aveni 2001, 2002a; Edmonson 1988; Lamb 2002; Marcus 1992a; Milbrath 1999). Although considerable interest exists in the physical orientations of buildings to celestial phenomena (see, e.g., Aveni and Hartung 1986), a deeper structurational role of astro-calendrical observations and ritual was until recently relatively ignored. But Munro Edmonson's (1988:x) exhaustive study of the "unitary calendrical system" of Mesoamerica—"the focal feature, greatest achievement, and almost the defining atribute [sic] of native America's most advanced civilization"—traces it back to the eighth century B.C.
Thirty years ago, Edmonson (1979) posed a series of intriguing "Postclassic questions about the Classic Maya" arising from his efforts to translate and annotate two of the Yucatecan indigenous histories known as the books of the chilam b'alam (speaker [chilam] of the jaguar priest [b'alam]). His studies prompted him to wonder if some of the features of Late Postclassic and early Colonial northern lowland Maya political organization might have relevance for understanding the Classic period. One of his interests was the possibility that the ca. 256-year calendrical cycle of the may, which structured the political geography of Late Postclassic Yucatán, also might have operated in the Classic-period southern lowlands. Despite archaeologists' awareness of long- and short-term calendrical cycling in the Maya area (A. Chase 1991; C. Jones 1991; Puleston 1979), such as celebration of the endings of twenty-year periods of time called k'atuns, no one had given serious attention to the applicability of the may model to the Classic Maya.
Recently, I (Rice 2004) pursued Edmonson's suggestions and used arguments based on direct historical analogy to retrodict the role of the may in the southern Maya lowlands. My investigation suggests that evidence can be adduced for the operation of the may beginning in the Preclassic period at sites around Tikal in central Petén, a possibility also suggested by Edmonson. But this prompted me to wonder why the Maya Long Count referenced a date in August of 3114 B.C. and, considered more broadly, when did the Mesoamerican calendars develop and where do the origins of calendrically based political ritual and power lie? The seemingly obvious answers to the last question are the Oaxaca area and the Gulf coastal Olmec region of Veracruz and Tabasco in the Formative period, where evidence for early writing is found. And, of course, Gulf coast origins were a tantalizing possibility that Edmonson had sketched earlier in his musings.
But thirty years ago, relatively little was securely known about the Formative (or Preclassic) period in the Gulf coast region, or anywhere else in Mesoamerica, for that matter. In the decades since Edmonson proposed a series of ~256-year cycles based on repetitive occurrences of K'atuns 8 Ajaw, so important to the Maya, there have been numerous important developments in Mesoamerican studies that make this an opportune time to pursue new questions and lines of investigation into Formative sociopolitical organization and political ritual in the Maya lowlands. For example, there has been considerable new archaeological work on Archaic through Middle Formative sites throughout Mesoamerica, including in Oaxaca (e.g., Flannery 1986a; Flannery and Marcus 1983, 2005), the Olmec region (e.g., Coe 1989a; Coe and Diehl 1980; Coe and Grove 1981; Cyphers 1996, 1997, 1999; Diehl 2004; González Lauck 1996; Grove 1993, 1997, 1999; Rust 1992; Rust and Sharer 1988; Sharer 1989a; Sharer and Grove 1989; Stark and Arnold 1997; Symonds 1995; Wendt 2005a, 2005b), and the Pacific coast of Mexico (e.g., Blake et al. 1995; Ceja Tenorio 1985; Clark 1991, 2001, 2004; Clark and Blake 1994; Clark and Cheetham 2002; Hill, Blake, and Clark 1998; Voorhies 1989a, 2004; Voorhies et al. 2002).
Olmec site layout and iconography have been pursued anew (Reilly 1999, 2000; Tate 2001) and the post-Olmec period has been investigated archaeologically at Tres Zapotes (Pool 2000, 2003) and Cerro de las Mesas (Stark 1991), and by means of analysis of Epi-Olmec writing on the recently discovered La Mojarra stela (Houston and Coe 2003; Justeson and Kaufman 1993 2004; Kaufman and Justeson 2001). In addition, excavations and new iconographic analyses at the Late Preclassic site of Izapa have been studied (Guernsey Kappelman 2001, 2002, 2003; Laughton 1997; Lowe, Lee, and Martínez 1982).
New archaeological research and epigraphic studies also have been undertaken at Kaminaljuyú (Hatch et al. 2001; Kaplan 1996; Mora-Marín 2005; Valdés 1997). In the Maya lowlands, a host of sites with Preclassic architecture have been excavated, including, in Petén—Nakbe and El Mirador (Hansen 1990, 1991b, 1998, 2000; Matheny 1986) and, most recently and spectacularly, San Bartolo (Saturno 2006; Saturno, Stuart, and Beltrán 2006; Saturno, Taube, and Stuart 2005); in Belize—Cerros (Freidel 1982, 2001b), Cuello (Hammond 1986, 1992, 1995), K'axob (McAnany 2004a), and Blackman Eddy (M. Brown 1997); and in Yucatán—Dzibilchaltun and Komchen (E. Andrews V 1986; Andrews and Andrews 1980) and Yaxuná (Stanton and Ardren 2005). New insights into early cultivators have emerged (Hansen et al. 2002; Pohl et al. 1996), and several syntheses or compendia of Preclassic or Formative research have appeared (e.g., Powis 2005a), including works on social patterns (Grove and Joyce 1999) and Maya art (Fields and Reents-Budet 2005a).
Moreover, new, well-annotated, and highly approachable translations of the highland Maya creation myth, Popol Vuh, have appeared (Christenson 2003; D. Tedlock 1985, 1996), making it far easier to investigate the complex correspondences that Coe noticed thirty years ago. Similarly, new annotated translations of the Chilam Balam of Chumayel (Edmonson 1986a) and the Chilam Balam of Tizimin (Edmonson 1982) permit fresh reflections on the relations between history and myth among the Postclassic lowland Maya.
Popol Vuh, a Maya Creation Myth
Many of the interpretations developed herein are closely tied to the Popol Vuh, so it is appropriate to give a brief overview of this text. In its extant version, the Popol Vuh (book of counsel, book of the mat council) is seen as the creation myth of the K'iche' (Quiché) Maya in the north-central Guatemalan highlands, explaining cosmogenesis and the origins of humans, animals, and celestial bodies. It is thought to have been committed to writing by three lineage leaders in their own language using Latin orthography sometime between 1554 and 1558 (D. Tedlock 1992, 1996:56). Although it incorporates references to Christianity, the book is clearly an indigenous Maya document, and new clues relate it to the Maya lowlands: Dennis Tedlock (1992:230, 1996:16, 46, 51, 211n30) claims that K'iche' ancestors acquired a hieroglyphic Popol Vuh manuscript while on a pilgrimage to the east coast of the Yucatán peninsula, and that the lowland site of Copán is referenced in the text. If true, this gives the Popol Vuh heightened significance for interpreting Classic lowland Maya history, ritual, iconography, and calendrics. Similarly, Allen Christenson (2003:33, 65n34, 97n178, 133n290, 196n479, 480) suggests that the extant Popol Vuh had its origins as a hieroglyphic manuscript from the lowlands and that the names of many characters and elements in it are derived from the lowlands and Yukateko Mayan. The origins of the specific incidents in this mythistory extend much farther back in time, however, and many, as we shall see in Chapter 6, can be recognized on the carved monuments at the Late Preclassic site of Izapa on the Pacific coast of Chiapas, Mexico (Kerr 1992; Laughton 1997).
The Popol Vuh can be read from the viewpoint of divination and narrative (D. Tedlock 1992) as well as poetry, given its couplet structure (Christenson 2003:42-52; Edmonson 1971). In fact, Michael Coe (1989b) has proposed that these stories were the Maya equivalent of the Greek Iliad and Odyssey. The creation story told in the Popol Vuh is complex, beginning in a primeval epoch when the universe was dark. The gods labored together to create life and light, a process known as "the sowing and the dawning" (D. Tedlock 1996:30-31; unless otherwise indicated, my summary is from this translation, pp. 30-44). As will be seen in later chapters, it is particularly significant that the first events of creation began with spoken words, thoughts, and conversation: in the Popol Vuh, Heart of Sky "is the name of the god, as it is spoken. And then came his word, he came here to the Sovereign Plumed Serpent. . . . He spoke with the Sovereign Plumed Serpent, and they talked, then they thought, then they worried. They agreed with each other, they joined their words, their thoughts. Then it was clear" (ibid.:65). Together they created the animals, which were given explicit orders relating to the calendar—"speak, pray to us, keep our days"—but because they did not "keep the days," they were destroyed (ibid.:67). The gods' next effort to create humans out of mud was also unsuccessful, so they conferred again: "What is there for us to make that would turn out well, that would succeed in keeping our days and praying to us?" They consult a pair of daykeepers, Xpiyacoc and Xmucane, seers or diviners who count the days and who advise the use of wood for the creation of speaking creatures. This too fails. At this point, the narrative turns to follow the adventures of the diviners' children and grandchildren in contexts that appear to alternate between the earth's surface and the Underworld.
Xpiyacoc and Xmucane have twin sons named One Hunahpu and Seven Hunahpu. One Hunahpu marries Xb'aqiyalo, and they have twin sons named Hun B'atz' (One Monkey) and Hun Chuwen (One Artisan). The two sets of twins sometimes play a ballgame in a ballcourt in the east, and a falcon messenger from the sky god Heart of Sky (also known as Huracan) often comes to watch them (ibid.:35). However, their exuberant sport angers the lords of the Underworld, or Xib'alb'a (Place of Fear), residing below. The senior lords of Xib'alb'a, One Death and Seven Death, deploy huge owl emissaries as messengers to issue a challenge to the elder twins to a game in their ballcourt, on the western edge of the Underworld. During their journey to the Xib'alb'a ballcourt, One Hunahpu and Seven Hunahpu unsuccessfully face numerous trials, so the Underworld lords sacrifice them the next day. "Both of them are buried at the Place of Ball Game Sacrifice, except that the severed head of One Hunahpu is placed in the fork of a tree that stands by the road there" (ibid.:36), and this tree becomes a calabash tree.
Blood Moon (or Blood Woman, Xk'ik'), the maiden daughter of Blood Gatherer, another of the Xib'alb'an lords, goes out to look at the calabash tree, whereupon the head of One Hunahpu, "animated by both brothers," spits in her hand, making her pregnant (ibid.). Her father, infuriated by her pregnancy, orders the owl messengers to sacrifice her and return her heart to him, but she persuades the owls to spare her and present her father with a nodule of incense in place of her heart. The owls guide her to the earth's surface, whereupon she goes to Xmucane claiming to be her daughter-in-law. Xmucane doubts the claim but, after testing Blood Moon by demanding that she fetch corn from the garden, Xmucane is finally convinced that Blood Moon is truthful (ibid.:37).
Blood Moon bears a set of twins, Hunahpu and Xbalanque, known as the Hero Twins. They enjoy hunting birds with blowguns and playing the ballgame, as did their fathers. However, the Twins are treated cruelly by their half-brothers Hun B'atz' and Hun Chuwen. One day the Hero Twins get revenge: they ask their older brothers to climb into the trees to retrieve the birds that did not fall when they shot them, but the Twins cause the trees to grow tall and maroon their mean half-brothers, who are turned into monkeys. B'atz' is the howler monkey (Alouatta pigra) and Chuwen is the spider monkey (Ateles geoffroyi); astronomically, One Monkey and One Artisan correspond to Mars (ibid.:38).
At some point in the story (the order of events is confusing), the Twins are called by Heart of Sky to deal with Seven Macaw (Vucub-Caquix), who claims to be the sun and the moon, and his two sons, all of whom are arrogant and boastful "pretenders to lordly power over the affairs of the earth." The Twins shoot Seven Macaw with their blowgun while he is sitting atop a nance tree (Byrsonima crassifolia) eating the fruit and then persuade two curers to pull out his teeth and remove the metal disks from around his eyes. Stripped of his finery, Seven Macaw ascends to become the Big Dipper (see ibid.:240n77, 242n78-79), with its seven principal stars, and his descendants are scarlet macaws (Ara macao).
Next, the Twins deal with the elder of Seven Macaw's sons, Zipacna (from Nawatl cipactli 'caiman, crocodile'). Zipacna is a large mountain-making saurian who survives a trap set for him by the Four Hundred Boys, the gods of alcoholic drink. Zipacna then kills the Boys, who rise to become the Pleiades. To avenge the death of the Four Hundred Boys, Hunahpu and Xbalanque set a trap—a crab wedged in a crevice in a mountain—and when Zipacna tries to eat it, the mountain collapses on him and he turns to stone (ibid.:35). Finally, they kill the younger of Seven Macaw's sons, Cabracan (Earthquake), by casting a spell on a bird they were cooking for him, and he is buried in the east. Thus "Seven Macaw, as the Big Dipper, is . . . near the pivot of the movement of the night sky, whereas his two sons [in the east and west] make the earth move" (ibid.).
The Hero Twins eventually take possession of the ballgame equipment owned by their fathers, One Hunahpu and Seven Hunahpu, and go to the ballcourt where their fathers had played. As before, their noisy play disturbs the lords of the Underworld, who summon the Twins to play a game in Xib'alb'a (ibid.:38-39). Cleverer than their fathers, Hunahpu and Xbalanque survive the journey by sending a mosquito in advance to learn the names of the lords and by employing various tricks to pass the tests the Xib'alb'ans devise for them. The next day sees actual ball play, first using a Xib'alb'an ball, which breaks open to reveal an animated sacrificial knife that fails to kill the Twins. The Twins and lords agree to a wager on the next game, using the Twins' ball, and the Twins allow themselves to lose the game. Again they are imprisoned and employ various ruses to survive the night in Razor House and produce the bowls of flower petals that were the game stakes (ibid.:40). The Twins subsequently survive stays in Cold House, Jaguar House, and Bat House, except in the last a bat is able to remove Hunahpu's head. The head rolls into the ballcourt, and Xbalanque transplants a squash on Hunahpu's shoulders as a replacement.
At this point in the story, a momentous event takes place: "[T]he eastern sky reddens with the dawn, and an opossum, addressed in the story as 'old man,' makes four dark streaks along the horizon" (ibid.:40-41). This is the first time light appears on the earth, and "[i]n the future a new solar year will be brought in by the old man each 365 days; the four streaks signify that only four of the twenty [Maya] day names . . . will ever correspond to the first day of a solar year" (ibid.:41).
The story returns to the Hero Twins and another ballgame with the Underworld lords, who use Hunahpu's head as the ball. Xbalanque sends it out of the court and makes the lords think that a scurrying rabbit is the ball/head. He also contrives to introduce the squash into play as a ball, but the lords soon realize that they have been ignominiously duped and prepare to sacrifice the Twins. The Twins, invited to the large stone fire pit where the Xib'alb'ans are preparing an alcoholic beverage, accept a challenge to see who can safely leap across the pit, but instead they jump into the fire. Thinking themselves rid of the pesky youngsters forever, the Underworld lords grind the bones of the Twins into a powder and pour it into a river (ibid.:42).
After five days, however, the Hero Twins return briefly as catfish and then as human dancers and illusionists, one of their acts being the sacrifice of an individual without actually killing him. The Xib'alb'an lords are entranced and invite the boys to entertain them, whereupon Xbalanque sacrifices Hunahpu and then revives him. Lords One Death and Seven Death demand that the Twins perform the same stunt on them, but this time the sacrifice is genuine. The Hero Twins then reveal themselves to all in Xib'alb'a and declare that from that moment forward the only offerings they will receive are incense and sacrificed animals (ibid.). They go back to the Place of Ball Game Sacrifice to try to revive the buried body of Seven Hunahpu but are unsuccessful (ibid.:43). The Hero Twins then ascend to the sky, where they become the sun and the moon. The first sunrise and full daylight appear over the earth for the first time.
Although this creation narrative can be and has been explored on many levels, I offer two interpretations based on the theoretical perspectives at the heart of my study. One comes from Mary Helms's (1988) discussion of the directionalities of time and distance from a center (axis mundi) or from the known world into the unknown, conceptualized as horizontal/spatial and vertical/temporal directions. The Maya Hero Twins' movements between the terrestrial surface and Xib'alb'a, as well as their and other creatures' movements from the earth into the sky, fit with what she (ibid.:45) refers to as the "creational primacy of the vertical axis," in which heroic characters of myth travel easily between earthly (known) to otherworldly (unknown) realms, acquiring new knowledge in the latter. Second, in the following chapters I argue that these characters and events of the Popol Vuh "dawn of life" creation narrative encode the history of major developments of Mesoamerican and, more specifically, Maya, calendars.
Time and Preclassic Mesoamerica
Defined geographically, the cultural region known as "Mesoamerica" extends from northern Mexico (roughly the Tropic of Cancer, 23° north latitude) southward through Guatemala and Belize into western Honduras and El Salvador (roughly 14° north latitude; Fig. 1.1). Within this environmentally diverse expanse, numerous societies developed, flourished, interacted, and declined over the millennia but came to share more in common with each other than with societies outside these boundaries. As a result, Mesoamerica is easily recognized as constituting a "culture area" (Kroeber 1939). The classic study by Paul Kirchoff (1943) refers to Mesoamerica as a "superarea of superior cultivators" and itemizes the characteristics shared with cultures to the north and south (e.g., mixed horticultural subsistence with corn, beans, and squash as the principal crops; technology based on stone rather than metal; and construction of pyramidal structures arranged around plazas) and those that were absent. More recent discussions of Mesoamerica have continued to employ the culture-area concept but greatly diminish this trait-list approach (e.g., Joyce 2000, 2004:3-9).
What is important to the thesis advanced here is not so much shared material culture as language and ideas. Mesoamerica is also a strongly defined linguistic area, with broad sharing of features such as word order, nominal possession, relational nouns, locatives, and loan translations (Campbell 1997:156-169; Campbell, Kaufman, and Smith-Stark 1986). In addition, Mesoamerican peoples observe deeply rooted and widely shared ideological, philosophical, and religious beliefs and rituals, including origin myths, cyclical time, vigesimal numeration, quadripartite cosmovision, and complex calendrical and writing systems. Gary Gossen's (1986:5-8) reflections on "Mesoamerican ideas" led him to identify five "key themes" shaping Mesoamerican intellectual culture over the millennia:
- The abiding theme of cyclical time as a sacred entity . . .
- A consistent delimitation of sky, earth, and Underworld in the spatial layout of the cosmos, with mediation among these realms as a key intellectual, political, and religious activity . . .
- Supernatural combat and secular conflict as creative and life-sustaining forces . . .
- The principle of complementary dualism . . . and,
- The extraordinary power of spoken and written language as a symbolic entity in itself, beyond its neutral role as a medium for routine communication."
The time depth of these themes is of particular interest here. As David Freidel (2001a:xiii-xix) elegantly phrases it in the epigraph, Mesoamerican historical memory resides in an enduring worldview some three thousand years old. My views are more liberal, and I agree with Joyce Marcus and Kent Flannery, who "do not find it at all surprising that certain basic cultural patterns should persist over a large area for 4000 years; in fact, we find it likely that certain patterns . . . persisted for more than 8000 years" (Marcus 1983a:9).
My focus is on time. When did Mesoamerican peoples begin thinking about time and recording its passage? Perhaps tens of thousands of years before they entered the region to become "Mesoamericans." Although the precise origins of calendrical, counting, writing, and cosmological systems throughout world prehistory are unclear (see Waugh 1999), certain principles underlying such record keeping can be taken as givens. Observation of celestial objects, particularly the sun and the moon, and the celebrated dualities of the natural world—day versus night, earth versus sky, rainy versus dry, hot versus cold, male versus female—have doubtless been fundamental to human cognition since Homo sapiens evolved (see Malinowski 1927; Nilsson 1920). Considerable research since the 1990s has made respectable the assertion that humans' "mental and cognitive capacities for symbolic behavior were already in place by the Middle Paleolithic" (ca. 100,000-40,000 B.C.) in the Old World (Hovers et al. 2003). Transmitted orally, early knowledge of the environment and the flow of cyclically occurring natural events might have begun to be formally recorded as early as 77,000 years ago, as indicated by engraved notations on red ochre from Blombos cave, South Africa (Bullington and Leigh 2002; Henshilwood et al. 2002). Later-dating carved bone artifacts from Upper Paleolithic Europe (ca. 40,000-10,000 B.C.) have been interpreted as tallies of lunar cycles (Marshack 1972) and likely relate to human gestation (Furst 1986:70).
The ancient art of astro-calendrics, based on observations of predictable regularities in movements of celestial bodies and their portents for human action, is nearly incomprehensible to people of the twenty-first-century Western world. Today we are scarcely able to appreciate the sky, day or night, because of smog and bright streetlights. In North America, time is merely a reflexive checking of our watches (or the Cesium133-based atomic clock at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, incorporated into our computers); weather changes mean tweaking the thermostat (after checking The Weather Channel™), and seasons are identified by lawn mowers, leaf blowers, and sports championships. Antedating the centuries of developments in predictive science and technology leading to these phenomena, however, prehistoric peoples around the globe relied on accumulating and orally transmitting knowledge of the cycling of the sun, moon, and other celestial bodies. As Anthony Aveni (2002a:298-299) comments,
Time control began when somebody drove a stick into the ground and began to use the varying lengths of its shadow as a means of signifying the quiescent duration that separates one event from the next. Longer periods, like days and months of the year, could be marked out by timing the heliacal risings of bright stars or by notching the phases of the moon onto a piece of a bone. . . . These people were looking . . . for phenomena that repeat in a dependable way and occur in the right time at the right place.
Indeed, the human body itself—its twenty fingers and toes, the female menses, pregnancy—provided a basis for modeling time and its cycles that might have begun sometime in the Paleolithic era. The ability to correlate celestial movements with other time indications such as the cyclical onset and passage of the rains, migrations of animal herds and flocks of birds, and ripening of berries and grains—and, indeed, eventually to predict such correlations—would have been a mystical and advantageous skill commanding respect and awe, ultimately conferring power on certain sagacious individuals (see Helms 1988:11-19). Much of this understanding of natural rhythms, cycles, and periodicities would have been part of the intellectual toolkit of the earliest migrants into the Americas from Siberia.
While such knowledge might have been widespread, the early people in what later became Mesoamerica added a unique component: numeracy, the ability to reason and work effectively in quantitative terms, by manipulating numbers. The importance of numeracy, alongside literacy, is most evident among the Maya, whose sophisticated vigesimal, or base-twenty, counting system and concept of zero or null permitted the systematization of their astronomical observations into complex, precise, and predictive calendars.
Chiefdoms and Cycles
I am interested here in things "temporal" in the word's time-specific meaning (of, relating to, or limited by time) but also in its other meanings: "of or relating to the material world . . . secular, lay, civil" (dictionary.com). These meanings assume importance when we consider the role of so-called middle-range societies—simple and complex chiefdoms—in the early stages of evolution of Mesoamerican civilizations. Although this book is not specifically "about" chiefdoms, rank and chiefly societies represent the sociopolitical context within which calendars and calendrical cycling emerged as key geopolitical devices in Mesoamerica and thus merit brief discussion.
As used here, the term chiefdom subsumes characteristics of sociopolitical organization intermediate between relatively simply organized societies (commonly called egalitarian, acephalous, or tribal), which lack permanent leadership positions, and those having highly complex and differentiated levels of information gathering and decision making (i.e., bureaucracies), commonly referred to as state-level societies (see, e.g., Cohen and Service 1978; T. Earle 1991; Feinman and Marcus 1998; Gregg 1991; Haas 1982, 2001a; Jones and Kautz 1981; Service 1975; Upham 1990; H. Wright 1984; Yoffee 1993). Between these extremes, chiefdoms exhibit considerable variability and have been defined in different ways. Some are characterized as simple: rank societies with two social strata, elites and commoners (Fried 1967:109, 116, 126). Complex chiefdoms (H. Wright 1984), on the other hand, exist on a regional level, with a paramount chief and subsidiary local chiefs, and have at least two levels of decision making above the level of commoners.
Archaeologists and ethnographers have long noted the tendency of chiefdoms to fluctuate or cycle in their levels of sociopolitical complexity. David G. Anderson (1994:1), in his study of chiefdoms of the late prehistoric southeastern United States, describes chiefly cycling as long-term variations that occur when administrative or decision-making levels oscillate between one and two levels above that of the local community. The genealogical basis of leadership—descent from an apical ancestor—and competition for power between elites with different descent claims play major roles in the (in)stability of chiefdoms and result in cycling (ibid.:4, 6). As certain elite lines grow over generations, with chiefs able to attract an ever-larger retinue, including their own relatives and followers and lesser elites, complex chiefdoms may form. But chiefly leaders have no real authority or sanctions to enforce allegiance to themselves; they lead largely by example, persuasion, or some sort of ideoreligious power. Rules for political succession are nebulous at best. Some chiefs and their lines survive the challenges, but others succumb and, as Anderson (ibid.:50-52) explains, it is this instability that drives the cycling process over hundreds of years.
Another approach to prehistoric political cycling comes from the "dual-processual" model proposed by Richard Blanton and his colleagues (1996). This model, intended to strengthen neoevolutionary theory by focusing on processes rather than evolutionary stages, contrasts two types of political economies by using Mesoamerica as a case study: one is an open "network," or exclusionary, strategy centered on individuals and economic competition, particularly focused on prestige goods; the other is a "corporate," or group-oriented, strategy. The Early and Middle Formative periods in Mesoamerica, for example, are characterized by the former: a network strategy emphasizing access to exotic trade goods available only in certain locations and to certain individuals or family lines at those locations (ibid.:8). One element of this widespread trade network was the spread of an artistic-symbolic tradition, generally dubbed "Olmec," which the authors identify as an "international style." The subsequent Late and Terminal Formative periods saw a decline of this widespread tradition and the shift to a "strongly corporate [strategy], emphasizing social integration through communal ritual" (ibid.:9). This is evidenced by a new emphasis on creating special places for public ritual, such as pyramids and open plazas, and "cosmic-renewal ceremony" (ibid.:10). The Early Classic period in the Maya area, with its divine kings and stelae celebrating dynastic achievements, represents a return to a network strategy. Blanton and colleagues (ibid.:13) conclude that "Mesoamerican social history from the early Early Formative to the Spanish conquest consisted of cycles of long duration alternating between network and corporate emphases rather than a simple linear sequence. . . . These cycles were not strictly repetitive . . . and different areas had somewhat distinct cyclic histories."
At issue, of course, is why such cycling occurs. Why do some chiefdoms evolve into ever more complex formations and ultimately into states while others revert to simple chiefdoms? Why do some societies, through their evolutionary development, fluctuate between network and corporate strategies? What explains the operation of similar patterns in archaic states, Marcus's (1992b, 1993) "dynamic model," whose histories exhibit cycles of increasing complexity and centralization alternating with decentralization? The theoretical positions on this topic are too vast to review here, and the reasons why developing societies increase in complexity or fail to evolve are not the ultimate subject of this book. What is of interest is the role in that process, among early Mesoamerican chiefdom societies, of temporal cycling: cycles of time and cycles of geopolitical organization.
The Early Maya and the Isthmian Region
Mayanists' attention has long been captured by the peculiarities of the relations between the Classic Maya lowlands and the central Mexican city of Teotihuacan, and between Maya Chich'en Itza and Mexican Tula. Yet there has been comparatively less intensive exploration of the historical (or longitudinal) relations between Preclassic societies in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, such as the Olmec or Izapan, and the lowland Maya. Indeed, for a long time the prevailing view was that there was little interaction, if any, although more recent studies of architecture and iconography have emphasized that interactions among and between the Middle and Late Preclassic Gulf Coast, the Pacific piedmont area, and lowland Maya played an important part in early pre-Maya and Maya history (E. Andrews V 1986; Bove 2005; Clark and Hansen 2001; Fields 1989; Hansen 2005; Reilly 1991; Rust 1992).
Here, I define the Isthmian region (Fig. 1.2) more broadly than the Isthmus of Tehuantepec proper, as roughly the area between 92° and 96° longitude that encompasses eastern Veracruz, all of Tabasco, eastern Oaxaca, and western Chiapas, with a southeast extension along the Pacific piedmont of Guatemala. I propose that this region was long held sacred by Mesoamerican peoples, including the Maya, as a "cradle of civilization," at least with respect to the origins of shared cosmology, creation myth, calendrics, and the calendrical basis of political power. My focus is not so much on singling out the earliest examples of calendars, writing, or architectural forms, as these are consequences of the goals and intensities of past archaeological fieldwork and serendipity. Instead, I am more concerned with relations and continuities among the material and symbolic components—cultural, iconographic, glyphic, and especially astro-calendrical—as they relate to an "ideology of time" in the early Isthmian region (as defined herein) and the lowland Maya area of eastern Mesoamerica.
John Baines and Norman Yoffee (1998, 2000) emphasize the complex interrelations of three factors—order, legitimacy, and wealth (OLW)—in the "high cultures" of early states and civilizations. Order, legitimacy, and wealth are the foundations of politico-economic stability, and the expressions of these factors and their interrelations vary from civilization to civilization (Richards and Van Buren 2000). Briefly summarized, the Baines-Yoffee model posits that creating and maintaining social and cosmic order is the responsibility of the ruling elites. These derive their legitimacy through efficacious exercise of that duty, in part through interactions with the gods and ancestors. Wealth is an inextricable component of legitimacy and order because it is access to and conspicuous display of wealth—particularly wealth represented by exotic and therefore "expensive" goods (Helms 1993)—that sets elites apart from commoners, thus reinforcing the essential order of things.
And all this is based on an ideology which Baines and Yoffee (2000:14) define as "the ascribed set of meanings about social, political, and economic relations and events, and specifically about who has power and how it is got." Other valid definitions of ideology emphasize the way explanations of power relations serve to legitimize the social order (e.g., Godelier 1978; Knapp 1988; Santos Granero 1986:660). In their exegeses of their model, Baines and Yoffee explain that they are addressing neither the origins of these elements nor how they came to be important in the various civilizations under consideration.
The OLW model has already entered into at least two discussions of the Formative/Preclassic Maya (Joyce 2000; McAnany 2004b), and my goal here is not to undertake a rigorous analysis of all three elements and their interrelations among the Maya. Nor, for that matter, do I attempt a thorough application of the model to the other Formative cultures I overview here. Instead, and unlike Baines and Yoffee, I am concerned with the origins of these elements, and particularly with the ideology at their foundation. While the OLW model provides a rich context for exploring traditional causal factors addressed by Mayanists, such as trade and warfare, in the evolution of lowland civilization, I am interested specifically in the generally underplayed roles of time and the calendar in that process.
My central thesis is that a distinctive pattern of rotating geopolitico-ritual organization developed in the Isthmian region and the Maya area through the early development of calendrical precisioning. I propose that esoteric knowledge, such as numeracy, the recording of time, and the keeping of calendrical records, was the basis of political power—that is, legitimization—for early leaders (see Helms 1988:11-19). These chiefs or shamans demonstrated "control" of the supernatural forces of the cosmos through early calendrical observations and emerging predictive capabilities, thereby establishing social and cosmic order. If this proposition has any validity, then we would expect that early materializations of order, legitimacy, and wealth, both personal (elite) and public, would reflect such cosmogonic, astro-calendrical, and time-based ideologies. This should be exemplified in monumental architecture, for example, which structures the space experienced by humans and is the supreme earthly embodiment of cosmic order (Parker Pearson and Richards 1994a). Architecture and related materializations, such as sculpture, rituals, symbol-laden objects, exotic goods, and writing systems, constitute dramatic displays of elite wealth, through both control of labor expended in their manufacture and acquisition (Helms 1993) as well as by flaunting the exotic goods in ceremonial deposits and kingly costuming. Altogether, I propose, early calendars and the materialization of time established the foundation of Maya rulers' intra- and intersite political power, order, legitimacy, and wealth.
The following chapters explore these complex relations of creation, cosmos, calendars, and cycling in chiefdom- and prechiefdom-level societies in eastern Mesoamerica. First, I briefly overview the very earliest periods of human occupation in Mesoamerica, the Paleoindian and Archaic periods, in order to establish the social, cultural, and technological foundations for, and earliest manifestations of, Mesoamerican cosmovision and ritual and the development of societal order and complexity. I argue that the scheduling of subsistence activities by seasonal changes, and particularly by settlement aggregations in what those of us in temperate northern hemispheric climes identify as late summer and early autumn, was driven by observations of celestial (especially solar) phenomena that established the early foundations for calendrical development. Then I review ideational aspects of Mesoamerican culture and worldview manifest in calendrics and cosmology, including theories about the origins of the calendars and day and month names. I propose that the late K'iche' Popol Vuh myth of cosmogenesis and human origins is also an allegory of the history of calendrical developments.
These arguments are followed by chapters treating the Middle Formative Olmec and the Late Formative Izapan cultures in the Isthmian region. In these chapters I highlight themes of architecture, iconography, and ritual that reveal shared cosmovision and ideology, and also the growth and development of political power and rulership through manipulation of these symbols. The landscape of monuments at Izapa, in particular, can be seen as mapping out the course for ritual processions celebrating solar solstitial events as well as elements of the later Popol Vuh creation myth.
The next chapters focus on the lowland Maya in the Preclassic period, their early settlement and architecture and their "intellectual culture" of calendrical ritual and writing—many elements developing alongside those of the Isthmian region, which established the very foundations of kingly power and state-level organization. I suggest that a combination of factors, particularly a change from a north-south to an east-west primary architectural orientation, marks the beginning of a solar emphasis or "cult" underpinning kingly power.
Finally, I interweave the various strands of evidence to argue that most of the calendrical developments so distinctively tied to the lowland Classic Maya (and the Formative Olmec) occurred far earlier than generally supposed. Mesoamerican calendrical ceremony was from the beginning politicized to uphold a distinctive system of rotating geopolitical capitals, materialized in architecture and art and expressed most enduringly among the lowland Maya for at least two millennia.