You asked for more indigenous technologies, and so today I’m going to tell you about how native american peoples kept track of time.
Let’s start by talking about mesoamerica. Their primary tool for keeping track of the sun, moon and planets? A simple but powerful invention known as the Almanac. The word might not ring a lot of bells for you, except for maybe a vague memory of Back to the Future, but almanacs are a pretty important part of pre-internet culture. They’re books that document something day to day, like sports scores, or weather for farmers. This helps a lot when trying to predict the weather in the future for planting and harvesting.
One of the oldest almanacs in human history comes from mesoamerica. You might’ve heard about how the Maya were obsessed with the movements of the stars and planets; this is how they did it.
Their almanacs contain astronomical movements, especially of the planet Venus. I guess the Maya really liked that bright little planet. The almanacs were made up of 260-day cycles that they called day-counts, and each day had a special meaning based on its location within 13 cycles of 20 days. That sounds weird, but let me explain it like this. I’m writing this video on a Sunday, which is day 1, or is it seven? Of a 7 day cycle within a 31 day cycle. If anything, the Maya calendar is a bit more consistent. When the 260 days were up, the almanac started over again. Some archaeologists think that the length of this cycle is based on the duration of human gestation, or more likely the orbit of Venus. Some Maya people use almanacs today for a similar purpose.
The almanacs weren’t just limited to the Maya. Many mesoamerican societies had a class of special calendar priests. They used these almanacs combined with knowledge of the local deities to set the dates of religious rituals, predict the future, name children, and determine lucky or unlucky days for certain activities. In the Aztec culture, these priests were called tonalpohualli.
These almanacs would be gathered into books, and though most of them were burned by Spanish conquistadores, a few have survived such as one of the most famous, the Codex Borgia. The earliest almanacs date from around the year 600 CE, predating the earliest European ones by as many as 500 years.
These almanacs were used to keep track of some of the world’s most sophisticated calendars. In mesoamerica, there were actually three. The first is that 260-day Venus cycle I mentioned. The first known carving of that calendar was found in the Oaxaca valley in modern day Mexico. Its age is estimated to be between 2.5 to 2.6 thousand years old.
Secondly, there was a solar calendar, made up the familiar 365 days. The year was divided into 18, 20-day months and was used for more secular activities. It mapped the days for activities like planting crops and organizing farmer’s markets.
Lastly, there was a mysterious calendar that tracked the moon. It consisted of months that alternate between 29 and 30 days in length. Though there’s not much to say about it, as ethnoastronomers, a real field, have no idea what it was used for.
What makes these calendars so fascinating is just how accurate they were. Without telescopes, or even the concept of fractions they made a calendar so precise that the length of a year was only 19 minutes off. At the time of contact this feat had only been rivaled by the Chinese. While the Chinese had the math and telescopes to measure the cosmos, Mesoamericans did it with only shadow casting devices, observations, and really good record keeping.
As far back as 2,400 years ago, we have records that the Venus and sun calendars were used side by side. Their interlocking systems meant that the combined dates repeated only every 52 years. They call this span a calendar round. Think of a mayan calendar as wheels within wheels within wheels, spinning faster the deeper you go. It’s kinda like a clock with a lot of hands.
The Maya used these calendar rounds to keep track of historical events, and they called them xiuhmolpilli, or roughly translated, a year-bundle. They had an even longer one called the baktun cycle, or the long-count calendar, but it had fallen out of favour by the time the Europeans arrived. This is the one that reset like a clock striking midnight back in December of 2012. Yeah, that’s what that whole thing was about.
Just a small interjection rant. Some people think that this is a Mayan calendar, sometimes even Crash Course says that it is, *clip* but this is all wrong. This item is currently in the national anthropology museum in Mexico City, a place I have been and everyone should go to once in their life. Archaeologists call it the Aztec Sun Stone. The stone is a 3.6 meter, 23 tonne basalt slab that is one of the most iconic symbols in Mexico. It’s even on their money. It’s not so much a calendar though as it is a depiction of the Aztec creation myth. So, it's not Maya, and not a calendar. Ok, rant over.
Let’s get out of mesoamerica and look at some other calendars. Some of the oldest in the Americas come from modern day Montana and Saskatchewan. These are medicine wheels, and the stone spokes on these wheels were aligned with the rising of stellar constellations on the summer solstice, effectively showing where you were within the year. These wheels are typically found in pretty remote areas, on hills or bluffs to make it easier to see the stars.
One of the biggest ones in Montana is called the Bighorn medicine wheel and thought to be several hundred years old based on how it’s aligned with the stars. Another wheel in Moose Mountain Saskatchewan is estimated to be 2,600 years old. That’s around the time the Buddha died.
Down in south America, the Inca people had an empire in the Andes mountains. Around the year 1000 CE they made a calendar of their own. This calendar mostly focused on the length of days, running from the summer to winter solstices. They even measured these with roads that led to the famous temple of the sun. The Inca also measured moon phases to determine when religious festivals would take place.
If you ever go on… sigh… History Channel and see the crazy alien man, you might have heard about the Nazca lines. These are earth mounds that make pictures created around 2.4 to 2.6 thousand years ago. Despite probably not being messages to outer space gods, there is a theory that the Nazca lines did have astronomical purposes, and might have served as calendars in their own right.
In the American southwest, the Anasazi built a calendar in modern day Chaco Canyon in New Mexico. It’s called the Sun Dagger calendar, and is at least 700 years old. They took large rock slabs, and arranged them in a way so that when the sun shined on them, shafts of light would fall on a carving of a spiral made in a cliff. The angle of the light would change through the seasons, and fall on different parts of the carvings. If you can read it, you can actually tell not just the seasons, but specific dates.
Further east, the Mississippians, yes I will make a video about them someday, made their own calendar near modern day St. Louis, Missouri. Archaeologists nicknamed it Woodhenge. It’s an oval shaped pit in the ground, that once contained a circle of wooden posts. The posts were aligned to the position of the sun for the solstices and the equinoxes. These circles also had a centre post, on which a Mississippian astronomer could observe the sunrise.
Ok, rapid fire now, let’s talk about the Hopi. They didn’t build calendars as much as use geological markers and the sun to gauge the time of year. To their southwest were the San Francisco Peaks. Notches and mesas in the mountain and the sunset worked as a landscape calendar. They also would watch the sky for the rising and falling positions of the sun and moon to find when plants needed to be planted. Some experiments done by archaeologists show that this was a pretty accurate way to prevent your crops from freezing.
In a more modern context, A Ho-Chunk, or Winnebago spiritual leader made a calendar stick in 1800 that marked solar and lunar calendars based on the leader’s observations. Astronomers have determined this to be the most sophisticated and accurate north american calendar.
Lastly, the Lakota have their own sophisticated calendar. It has 13 months or moons, and each moon is 28 days long. The year begins in the spring, and focus around the seasons of planting and hunting. They knew on certain months when to change lifestyles. Different Lakota groups might have different names for these moons, but they function the same.
I know that this was a bit of a strange video. Calendars? Really Tristan? But I think that these show just how sophisticated a lot of indigenous cultures are, and showcase the impressive achievements that make them work. These societies to this day are really amazing, and these calendars show just how much of a cultural feat something as simple as keeping track of time is. Something we today really take for granted.