Introduction

FIGURE 1. The Day 1 Alligator, from page 21 of the Codex Nuttall.

FIGURE 1. The Day 1 Alligator, from page 21 of the Codex Nuttall.

FIGURE 2. The cycle of 20 day signs, beginning with Alligator.

FIGURE 2. The cycle of 20 day signs, beginning with Alligator.

FIGURE 3. The cycles of 13 numbers (left) and 20 day signs (right). Imagine the number cycle turning clockwise, and the day sign cycle turning counterclockwise.

FIGURE 3. The cycles of 13 numbers (left) and 20 day signs (right). Imagine the number cycle turning clockwise, and the day sign cycle turning counterclockwise.

FIGURE 4. The Year 1 Reed, Day 1 Alligator, from page 22 of the Codex Nuttall.

FIGURE 4. The Year 1 Reed, Day 1 Alligator, from page 22 of the Codex Nuttall.

The Ñudzavui used a calendar system found throughout Mesoamerica. Versions of it were utilized by the Classic Maya and the Postclassic Nahuas, and it is still used by some indigenous groups today, such as the Quiché Maya of Guatemala. This system combined a repeating cycle of twenty day names with the numbers 1 to 13. In the Ñudzavui system, day names were depicted using small glyphic pictures, and numeric values were represented using a series of dots. Figure 1, showing a single dot and a picture of the head of an alligator, would be read as “1 Alligator.” Alligator was the first of the twenty day signs in a cycle. It was followed by Wind, then House, then Lizard…and finally ended, nineteen days later, with Flower. Figure 2 shows the full cycle of twenty Ñudzavui day signs.

This cycle of ritual day names and numbers began on the Day 1 Alligator and ended 260 days later on the Day 13 Flower, after each of the twenty day names had appeared thirteen times. Figure 3 illustrates how these two “wheels” of day names and numbers functioned together.

At the same time that this 260 day ritual calendar was cycling, a solar cycle of 365 days was counted alongside of it. These two cycles aligned every 52 years, forming the Mesoamerican equivalent of our century. Just as each day in the 260 day calendar had its own glyph-and-dot-name, each 365 day unit of time was also given a specific name. These year names used the same notational system found in the ritual calendar—the name of the first solar year, for example, was Year 1 Reed. Because of the way the 260 and 365 day calendars aligned, only four glyphs could serve as the name of a year—the “Year Bearer.” These four Year Bearers (represented using the same basic glyphs as day signs) were Reed, Flint, House, and Rabbit.

Ñudzavui dates were therefore composed of two elements—the name of the day in the ritual cycle of 260 days, and the position of that day within the solar cycle of 365 days. The solar year names were visually differentiated from the day names of the ritual calendar by attaching the year name to a glyph that looks like an intertwining of the letters A and O—the “A-O sign.” Figure 4 shows this intertwined sign at the beginning of a date: the Year 1 Reed, Day 1 Alligator, first day of the Ñudzavui 52-year cycle.

An important feature of this calendric system is that it had no zero point. The same year-day combinations were repeated again and again. In the West, we abbreviate year dates in casual conversation—”…back in the seventies…—but can specify whether we mean the 1770s, 1870s, or 1970s. The Ñudzavui calendar system didn’t allow time to be set within such an overarching linear structure. The lack of an absolute dating point has been one of the problems in attempts to correlate Ñudzavui chronology with the Gregorian calendar, an issue that will be discussed in detail below.

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