THE LONG COUNT
The Long Count is the name given to the chronology used by the Maya during their Classical Era to keep track of the long-term passage of vast tracks of time that individual human lifetimes could not encompass. On almost all the ancient pyramids and stelae, dates were inscribed according to this "Long Count."
Although the Maya and other Mesoamerican societies had the Haab, a solar year of 365 days, the Long Count is based upon a “mathematical year” of 360 k’in (days), called a tun, which means “stone” in Mayan. Twenty tuns (7,200 days) was a k’atun, which means “twenty stones.” Twenty k’atuns (400 tuns or 144,000 days, or 394.3 solar years), constituted a b’ak’tun, meaning “a bundle of stones.” Thirteen b’ak’tuns made up a Great Cycle, which adds up to 5,200 tuns and 260 k’atuns. All Long Count dates contain the following elements, written in this order: the b’ak’tun, the k’atun, the tun, the winal or 20-day period, and the k’in or day. A Mayan date such as 126.96.36.199.16 (July 5, 674 AD) means that 9 b’ak’tuns, 12 k’atuns, 2 tuns, 0 winals, and 16 k’ins have passed since the creation date in 3114 BC.
Today, most archaeologists agree that the beginning date of the thirteen baktuns of the Long Count was the day we would now call August 11, 3114 BC. The Great Cycle—that span of time which began in 3114 BC and ends upon the much heralded event of December 21, 2012—is part of the Long Count. With the invention of the Great Cycle, the Maya were making a bold and powerful effort to mathematically quantify and define the cycles of world emergence. The Mayan mathematical system is a vigesimal system, meaning it’s based on orders of twenty—as in, one, twenty, four hundred, eight thousand, and so on—rather our own decimal system, which is based on orders of ten—as in, one, ten, hundred, thousand, and so on.
The Long Count endowed the Maya with a sense of cosmic vision that made them unique. Though all Mesoamerican civilizations made use of the Sacred Calendar, only the Classic Period Maya practiced the Long Count. Whether or not they were the ones who invented it, they certainly adapted it as their own and made it one of the foundation stones of their culture. In a way, it is a measure of their unique mathematical and philosophical gifts.
It should be noted that the current swell of interest in 2012, the supposed end of the Mayan Calendar, cresting at times into fear and anxiety about the end of the world, the end times, the Apocalypse, and other similar awe-inspiring events, is largely unfounded, if simply by definition. The Mayan Calendar is not defined solely by the Long Count; it is a system of timekeeping tools, as is explained on these pages, that work harmoniously together to offer a multi-level view into the nature of existence, from the individual human being to the large-scale universal time scales most of us find hard to imagine.
Those who perceive the end of the Great Cycle as a catastrophe or cataclysm may wish to note that the Maya conceived of epochs or ages that were much longer than the Great Cycle. A p’iktun was comprised of 8,000 tuns or 20 b’ak’tuns. A kalabtun was 160,000 tuns, and a kinchiltun was 3,200,000 tuns. The present p’iktun will end on October 13, 4772 AD, a date that was carved in the Temple of the Inscriptions at Palenque.
The Maya themselves do not endorse a specific end date, and they certainly do not promote the end of the world. Regardless of the point of view you take, the Mayan Calendar has always been about the journey, not the destination.