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As the year comes to an end, we make resolutions, buy new calendars, and get ready to step into the unknown. The division of time into work days and weekends, minutes and years is often too ingrained to notice. But if we look beyond our own time and place, we can see that some people have organized temporal reality very differently.

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In a 2008 paper, anthropologist Prudence M. Rice considers time as people understood it in the Classic and Postclassic Maya civilization (periods that, by the calendars most of us use today, spanned from around 200 to 900 C.E. and 900 to 1500 C.E., respectively).

Rice writes that even linguistics points to how the Maya civilization conceptualized time differently than we do. Maya verbs focus less on tenses referring to the past, present and future than English and Spanish do. Instead, they emphasize “aspects” that convey information like whether an action is complete, ongoing, or repeated—comparable to the habitual “be” in African American Vernacular English.

Many scholars contrast linear and cyclical time and note that cycles were an important part of Maya concepts of temporal reality. Cyclical time is often associated with the sacred.

“Rituals always take the participants back to the same point in the mythical past, which may be the beginning of time or ‘heydon time’ in a strictly chronological sense,” Rice writes.

Maya histories, recorded in hieroglyphic texts, used dates from two concurrently running cyclical calendars. The tzolk’in, or “count of days” lasted 260 days. The ja’ab’ was made up of 18 periods lasting 20 days each, plus five “unlucky” days, adding up to 365 days, approximating the solar year. In addition to these cycles, the Classic Maya’s Long Count dated events in linear fashion, going back to 3114 B.C.E.

The combination of the two cyclical systems meant that a day that was identical on both calendars occurred every 52 years, a length of time known as the Calendar Round. Days and other units of time could be represented with animals or other living figures, but Rice writes, this was more than merely symbolic.

“Time was fundamentally animate,” she writes. “The days and the numbers that precede and differentiate them are anthropomorphic deities who carry units of time on a cosmic journey.”

Each day possessed certain characteristics that might make it favorable or unfavorable for particular activities—something that trained specialists could decipher. Rice notes that this work continues in the twenty-first century. For example, traditional ritual specialists, or “daykeepers,” among the modern Maya people of highland Guatemala observe sunrise and sunset positions to schedule celebrations and study portents for newborn children.

While it’s not clear exactly the role that keepers of this knowledge had in Maya societies centuries ago, Rice suggests that they aided rulers in determining times appropriate for rituals, battles, trade, and other activities. As with the structures that set standard working hours and vacation days today, the ability to control others’ conceptions of time was a powerful force.

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Latin American Antiquity, Vol. 19, No. 3 (Sep., 2008), pp. 275-298
Cambridge University Press