Ancient Calendars

Source: National Institute of Standards and Technology Physics Laboratory

depiction of a Mayan calendar

Celestial bodies—the sun, moon, planets, and stars > have provided us a reference for measuring the passage of time throughout our existence. Ancient civilizations relied upon the apparent motion of these bodies through the sky to determine seasons, months, and years.

We know little about the details of timekeeping in prehistoric eras, but wherever we turn up records and artifacts, we usually discover that in every culture, some people were preoccupied with measuring and recording the passage of time. Ice-age hunters in Europe over 20,000 years ago scratched lines and gouged holes in sticks and bones, possibly counting the days between phases of the moon. Five thousand years ago, Sumerians in the Tigris-Euphrates valley in today's Iraq had a calendar that divided the year into 30-day months, divided the day into 12 periods (each corresponding to 2 of our hours), and divided these periods into 30 parts (each like 4 of our minutes). We have no written records of Stonehenge, built over 4000 years ago in England, but its alignments show its purposes apparently included the determination of seasonal or celestial events, such as lunar eclipses, solstices and so on.

The earliest Egyptian calendar was based on the moon's cycles, but later the Egyptians realized that the “Dog Star” in Canis Major, which we call Sirius, rose next to the sun every 365 days, about when the annual inundation of the Nile began. Based on this knowledge, they devised a 365-day calendar that seems to have begun in 4236 B.C., the earliest recorded year in history.

In Babylonia, again in Iraq, a year of 12 alternating 29-day and 30-day lunar months was observed before 2000 B.C., giving a 354-day year. In contrast, the Mayans of Central America relied not only on the sun and moon, but also the planet Venus, to establish 260-day and 365-day calendars. This culture flourished from around 2000 B.C. until about 1500 A.D. They left celestial-cycle records indicating their belief that the creation of the world occurred in 3113 B.C. Their calendars later became portions of the great Aztec calendar stones. Other civilizations, such as our own, have adopted a 365-day solar calendar with a leap year occurring every fourth year.

Measuring YearsCalendarThe Chinese Calendar

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