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Time, Number, and History in the Maya World

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What better way to understand ourselves than to compare our habits, our customs, our behavior with those of another? This is the goal of anthropology: to comprehend our own culture by reflecting it from the mirror of otherness. When most effective its results can be unsettling. Consider the possibility of discovering other ways of knowing that challenge our own - that can even cause us to doubt whether the knowledge we hold dear really constitutes the whole of the matter.

When it comes to the study of time there are few cultures, past or present, worth reflecting upon that match the ancient Maya of Yucatan. They have been characterized in their classical (AD 200-900) heyday as a people preoccupied with time, obsessed by time; they were worshipers of time: "The great theme of Maya civilization is the passage of time . . ." (Thompson 1954, p. 13). "The central importance of the calendar . . . and the central importance of religion to everything else conspire to make the history of [their] calendar something of a key to the general cultural history of the region." (Edmonson 1988, p. 4). "Nothing in man's life would be set apart as being unrelated to the realm of the destinies of time" (Leon Portilla 1989, p. 222).

The study of Maya time offers us the added bonus that since all pre-Columbian cultures were hermetically sealed by two oceans from outside influence prior to Hispanic contact, whatever we may glean concerning the perception of time from its artifacts offers us the unique opportunity to seek cultural universals and to address specifically whether diverse civilizations might develop similar practices and ideas in their encounters with the problem of time.

This essay examines the connections between time and history,with special emphasis upon the unusual role played by the concept of number, in the ancient Maya world.The resources for such a study are many and varied. I begin with a discussion of the content of the monumental inscriptions.A major focus of Mayanists since great advances in decoding the Maya script were made in the 1970's, most texts are carved on impressive stone stelae erected about the Maya ruins, well remembered by visitors to Tikal, Copan and Calakmul. I then move on to the esoteric world of the sacred books.Though scarcely a handful of them remain, they hold the keys to the deepest understanding of what time meant to the elite daykeepers who devised them. Along the way we supplement our understanding of these texts by referring to colonial period documents and ethnological studies of contemporary cultures descended from the ancient Maya. Here we discover a remarkable continuity of culture, which greatly illuminates our understanding of the Maya past.

10.1163/156852401760060919
/content/journals/10.1163/156852401760060919
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/content/journals/10.1163/156852401760060919
2001-06-01
2016-12-09

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