Posted by: Johan Normark | January 26, 2012

Speculations of how cumulative time was replaced by cyclical time

A year from now I will send away an application for a new project. There is plenty of time to develop some ideas and time is exactly the central part of the project. It will take too long to describe the overall frame of the project idea as it melts ideas from neuroscience (or rather neuroarchaeology), “Western” time philosophy, object-oriented philosophy, Maya time keeping and a variety of archaeological data. I need some material or narrative with which to begin with. It goes something like this (it is still speculative).

I associate the use of the Maya Long Count calendar with the emergence and decline of divine kingship. Although the first inscriptions are not from the Maya area, the divine kings came to be associated with the Long Count during the Classic period, something which can be supported by the fact that both the institution of ajawlel and the Long Count disappeared with the collapse. We find a rather different situation in the Postclassic with the more “Mexicanized” or “international” style. In the northern lowlands the Long Count was replaced by the Short Count which is cyclical (which I do not think the Long Count was). Hence, I disagree with Prudence Rice’s argument that the may-cycle model existed in the Classic period as well. The “lower” parts of the old Long Count were still in use, such as the katuns, but now the time periods took on a cyclical character rather than piling up on each other and increasing the burden. I propose that this change partly had to do with more intensive contacts with Central Mexican ideas. Later Aztec beliefs do emphasize beliefs in multiple creations/Suns and I suspect similar ideas rubbed off in the Maya lowlands. This is why we find mentions of earlier creations in Popol Vuh and in Yucatec myths. As far as I know, we do not find evidence of multiple creations in Classic period and Late Formative iconography or texts. Correct me if I am wrong.

As noted by Stanley Guenter in a discussion on facebook, it is possible that the idea of multiple creations was inspired by the rise and fall of earlier kingdoms and cities. This may have been far more obvious in central Mexico where the ruins of Teotihuacan became crucial in the creation myths of the later Aztecs. These ruins were never hidden in the way that ruins of the Mirador basin were as they quickly became absorbed by the forest. There is evidence of later reoccupation at Nakbe during the Classic period and the Kan kings later chose Calakmul as their capital perhaps because it was connected to the ruins of El Mirador by a causeway (probably overgrown by then though).

Reoccupation of earlier sites is a common pattern in the Maya lowlands. During the Postclassic many Terminal Classic sites were reoccupied in the Cochuah region. So far, over 100 miniature shrines crown earlier “pre-collapse” structures in the region. Such re-occupations likely triggered a belief in earlier creations of “pre-sunrise” beings as Byron Hamann calls them.

This also means that when the Long Count calendar originally was launched in the first centuries BC, far fewer ruins of earlier cities and kingdoms were known, perhaps with the exceptions of nearby ruins in the Olmec area. What I propose here, then, is that the cyclical view of time emerged slowly alongside the “cumulative” time of the Long Count as people interacted with the physical traces of their past and also received similar ideas from Central Mexico. As the “collapse” ultimately destroyed the Long Count as well, the cyclical Short Count replaced it as a logical outcome.

That’s about it so far. Somewhat speculative thus far but let time tell…



  1. All very interesting, Johan, and some of this resonates with ideas and speculations I posited in The Order of Days (Chapter 7, especially p. 199). As you say, there are no Aztec-like cycles of creation and destruction in Classic Maya mythology.

  2. Do you know if there is any evidence of Aztec-like cycles at Teotihuacan (or in any other “pre-Postclassic” contexts)?

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