The Heavens and Time
Like other cultures around the world, the pre-contact American peoples developed methods of measuring time based on astronomical observations of the movements of heavenly bodies. Because the moon is easily visible and changes in appearance each day, it became the basis of calendars in many ancient societies. Solar calendars also arose for measuring the length of the day and year. Development of accurate calendars requires sophisticated mathematical calculations.
The system developed by the ancient Maya civilization was astronomically more accurate than the Julian calendar used in Europe at the time of the first encounters between early explorers and native cultures. The Maya used three interrelated calendars, two of which were used simultaneously. Like the Maya calendar, the Aztec calendar consisted of a ritual cycle of 260 days and a 365-day civil cycle.
This section provides examples of Maya and Aztec calendars and European texts from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries that demonstrate the relationship between astronomical observation, mathematics, and the measurement of time.
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