L. Stele with number glyphs. R. Inscription from a lintel.
4th c BCE-4th c CE Pre-Columbian: Mesoamerican L. Monte Alban I R. Maya Sculptu
(active Classic/ Post Classic c. 200 - 1520)
(active Classic/ Post Classic c. 200 - 1520)
c. 300 BCE-300 CE
4th c BCE-4th c CE
L. Monte Alban I R. Maya
L. Monte Alban. Oaxaca. Mexico. R. Bonampak. Chaipas
During the first millennium BCE the influence of the Olmecs spread outside their Gulf Coast homeland, although nowhere else does one find the temple-centers, colossal heads or massive offerings typical of the Olmec heartland. Instead trade in precious Olmec objects spread the style which was gradually assimilated into other native styles throughout much of Mesoamerica.
One of the most interesting areas of influence was at Monte Alban in the highland area around Oaxaca. The image on the left, one of a group of slabs from Monte Alban, is considered to be the earliest dated writing in America. The slabs demonstrate both hieroglyphic symbols and bar-and-dot numerals which together created dates. No one has yet been able to read these early glyphs, although it has been argued that the glyphs refer to conquests and the number signs refer to the dates of the conquests. Michael Coe believes that the calendar glyphs may have originated in the Olmec world. Coe bases his argument on the appearance of incised marks on Olmec jades that seem to be the ancestors of Maya glyphs, an example of which is seen on the right.
On Pre-Columbian monuments number signs and glyphs were used to describe two different calendars, one of which was based on the solar year. In this system the 365 day solar year was divided into 18 months of 20 days each, with an additional 5 days needed to synchronize it with the movement of the sun. A second sacred calendar bore no relationship to solar phenomena, but rather was comprised of a 260 day cycle in which each of the 20 day signs was combined with every number from 1 to 13. This calendar was used for determining lucky and unlucky days and each day was watched over by a different deity. Children were often given a name that indicated their day of birth, for instance Five Jaguar.
These two calendars were combined into a 52 YEAR CYCLE which was determined by multiplying 260 by 365 arriving at 18,980 days. The change from one cycle to another was considered very dangerous, and every 52 years all fires were extinguished, old temples were destroyed and new ones built. This system was known at Oaxaca by 500 BCE and had spread throughout most of Mesoamerica by 300 AD.
Mesoamerican mathematical systems used a base of 20, rather than our base 10, for their calculations. Numbers were depicted using a system of bars and dots. They understood the concept of zero and used place for describing numbers, starting from the bottom. The lowest number uses a bar for 5 plus dots for 1 and a special glyph for zero. Here the bottom sign in the left column gives us a value of 8. The level above indicates how many 20s there are, in this case 4; so we have the number 88. If there were a third level, it would refer to the number of 400s (20X20). Thus any number could be written. When combined with glyphs, particular "months" or other cycles could be specified.
Another calendar system, known as the 'LONG COUNT" was thought to have been developed by the Maya, but Coe thinks that it was known to the Olmecs. This system cleared up the confusion caused by starting to count all over again every 52 years, for it calculated all dates from a specific time set in the past. Instead of the weeks, months and years used in the Christian calendar, the Pre-Columbian Long Count use 1 kin to refer to a day, 1 uinal to refer to 20 days (20 kins);1 tun to refer to 360 days or (18 uinals); 1 katun to refer to 7200 days (20 tuns); and 1 baktun to refer to 144,000 days (20 katuns). The starting date for our current cycle is the equivalent of Aug. 12, 31113, written as 188.8.131.52.0, a mythological date which marked the end of the last Great Cycle of 13 baktuns.
The first Long Count date appears in Tikal in the Maya lowlands and carries the equivalent of 292 AD. Archeologists used 300, the approximate date of the first Long Count inscriptions in the Maya area to mark the end of the Formative and the beginning of the Classic period. The fact that Mayans inscribed their monuments with Long Count dates enables us to date them.
The Maya created a system of glyphs that are a combination of pictographs and phonic symbols which they used to create inscriptions. Their decoding by cryptographers and linguists finally allowed us to understand the meaning of many reliefs that had up to them been mysterious and totally changed the modern view of the Maya.
ZAPOTEC | L. Stele with number glyphs. R. Inscription from a lintel.| | Pre-Columbian: Mesoamerican | L. Monte Alban R. Bonampak. Chiapas. I