Wednesday, March 7, 2012

About The Mayans And Leap Year

There has been an interesting quote running around the Internet (especially Facebook) this week regarding the Mayan Calendar.

There have been about 514 Leap Years since Caesar created it in 45BC. Without the extra day every 4 years, today would be July 28, 2013. Also, the Mayan calendar did not account for leap year…so technically the world should have ended 7 months ago

The above quote, while true in a strict technical sense (indeed Mayans did not have leap years as we understand them), demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of how the Mayans kept track of time.

Currently, we use a calendar called the Gregorian Calendar which is based upon the solar cycle, which is 365.2425 days long. Since a solar year is longer than a calendar year by a few hours, we have to compensate for that difference or the seasons start to drift out of alignment with the dates and we end up with snow in July. The Gregorian Calendar does this by adding an extra day every four years. The years in which this happen are called leap years. Unfortunately, those extra few hours at the end of each solar year don't quite add up to a quarter of a day, so, in order to further compensate for this discrepancy, the Gregorian Calendar ignores the leap year rule in years that are evenly divisible by 100, unless those years are also evenly divisible by 400. So, for example, the years 1600 and 2000 were leap years, but 1700, 1800 and 1900 were not.

The Mayans viewed time in a completely different manner than we do today. They used a system of calendars based upon different methods structured around several cycles or "counts" of varying length to keep track of time. They had a 260 day calendar called the Tzolk'in which combined a system of 20 days with 13 numbers. The also used at 365 day calendar (360 named days plus 5 unnamed days at the end of the year) called the Haab' which was the foundation of their agrarian calendar and used month names that were based on the seasons and agricultural events. Mayans used both the Tzolk'in and the Haab' when recording dates to form a synchronized cycle lasting for 52 Haabs. The passage of 52 Haabs was referred to as a "calendar round". After the passage of 1508 Haabs (29 calendar rounds), 365 extra days would have had to have been adjusted for and it just so happens that the solar cycle and Haab count reset to zero after 1508 tropical years. This means that the Haab calendar auto-adjusted for leap years, it just took 1508 years to do so.

In order to keep track of time over periods longer than 52 years, Mayans utilized the Long Count calendar which is what this whole Mayan Doomsday hoopla is based upon. The Long Count keeps track of days by using a base-20 and base-18 scheme rather than the base-10 scheme that we usually use. The calendar was broken up into sections. A k'in was equal to a day. After 20 days, the k'in number would reset to zero. A winal equaled 20 k'in and would reset to zero after 18 winals had passed. A tun equaled 18 winals and would reset to zero after 20 tuns had passed. A k'atun equaled 20 tuns and would reset to zero after 20 k'atuns would pass. A b'ak'tun equaled 20 k'atuns. A b'ak'tun is roughly equal to 394.3 solar years.

Using the Long Count calendar, today's date (March 7, 2012) would roughly be expressed as: 12.19.19.3.11 (12 b'ak'tun, 19 k'atun, 19 tun, 19 winal, 11 k'in). Doomsday alarmists are all in a panic because sometime on December 21, 2012, the Mayan Calendar is going to hit 13 b'ak'tun or 13.0.0.0.0 and that sort of resetting of the numbers is seen as a significant event. The calendar isn't ending, it's just adding 1 more to the number of b'ak'tuns and resetting all the other numbers to zero. The same sort of thing happened on September 18, 1618 when the Long Count date reached 12.0.0.0.0 and on June 15, 1224 when the Long Count date reached 11.0.0.0.0 and so forth. And the world is still here.

When I first saw the leap year quote on Facebook, I typed out a long response debunking it. When I saw it again, I typed out a shorter response. Soon, I trimmed down my responses to something like "The Mayans were aware of it and corrected for it. The people who compared our current calendar to the Mayan Calendar were also aware of the differences and compensated for it". Now, after seeing the quote so many times over the past week, I find that I'm tired of trying to educate people on it. And it's a waste of time because the quote incorrectly debunks something that didn't need to be debunked in the first place. Anyone who's actually stupid enough to believe in Mayan Calendar doomsday prophecies is already far out of the logical loop anyways. It's on a par with believing that the world will end on December 31, 2012 because the calendar that I bought at Wal-Mart ends on that day. So, if people want to post that stupid quote and feel like they're smarter than these crazy doomsday predictors, it's still a net gain.

15 comments:

  1. Glad I found this.

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  2. Hi. I'm trying to understand. So I ran the numbers:

    1508 Haabs times 365 equals 550,420
    1507 "years" times 365.2422 (a number I found on another site that seems to work better) equals 550,419.9954

    Is this what you mean by self correcting?
    Does this not still have the snow in "July" problem?
    Or does 550,420 "days" line up with the long count somehow?

    Sorry for all the questions, your the first person I've found to make sense.

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    1. Mags,

      The Mayans were well aware that a year was not a perfect 365 days and they made corrections to the Haab when necessary. But, that doesn't matter. What matters is the Long Count calendar which is what has been used to predict the coming apocalypse. This Long Count calendar wasn't broken up into months and years like our current calendar is. It's a completely different system, one that employes a non-repeating system (our calendar repeats every 12 months) so the need for a leap year does not exist.

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  3. All this sounds like about as much hogwash as the whole ending of the world thing itself! Keeping track of time has never been an exact science and never will be for the simple reason that our "perception" of time is constantly changing. The sooner people stop trying to predict an "Armageddon", the better off we'll all be!

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    1. AMEN To that! Besides everything that had happened thousands of years ago is a guess or someones opinion of what happened. Tell a story to someone and when it gets back around it has changed totally. It just amazes how people believe everything they read or hear.

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  4. Thank you. This clears a few things up for me.

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  5. They are scientist and they do have forms

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  6. if the mayans weren't able to foresee their own demise i put little faith in their ability to predict the end of the world

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  7. They actually did forsee their own demise..

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  8. A lot of us are the descendents of the Mayans.

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  9. Wow, that was really uninteresting. And I studied philosophy (also very uninteresting much of the time). But thanks for debunking total bullshit so I didn't have to!

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  10. Actually, the whole problem is that there are many versions of the Mesoamerican Calendar, and some did correct their calendars after a 52-year period, and some may have even used a lead year to make sure the seasons were instep with the 20-day month.

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  11. Here I sit years after this was written still alive and the earth is still spinning. I like the comparison of the Wal Mart calendar ending and the Mayan calendar ending. 2017 and the sun is still shining.

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