National Museum of the American Indian to Launch Website on the Maya Calendar System and the Year 2012

Education and Research Initiative to Highlight Maya Culture and Dispel Doomsday Myths
November 1, 2012
News Release

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian will launch Living Maya Time – Viviendo el tiempo maya—a bilingual website dedicated to highlighting Maya culture and dispelling doomsday myths about the end of the Maya calendar in 2012. The website will launch Nov. 1, the first day of Native American Heritage Month and 50 days before the completion of the Maya Long Count Calendar Dec. 21.

The ancient Maya, an advanced millenary civilization in Mesoamerica, are renowned for their knowledge of astronomy, mathematics, timekeeping and the cycles of celestial objects, as well as hieroglyphic writing, architecture and agriculture. The Maya Calendar System is a tangible expression of this scientific and cultural legacy. The Maya used their knowledge of the zenith passage of the sun to accurately calculate the length of the solar year, invented the mathematical concept of zero and developed several calendars (Tzolk’in, Haab and Long Count) that interlock in sequential cycles, with the Long Count Calendar culminating Dec. 21.

The Maya devised their ceremonial calendars and agricultural calendars through a deep understanding of the interconnection between the sun’s movements and the cycle of corn. There is a large population of Latinos now living in the U.S. who originally came from Mesoamerica and whose ancestral roots are indigenous. In California alone, there are more than 50,000 Yucatec Maya immigrants who speak their native language and identify strongly with their cultural heritage. Today, more than 7 million Maya people live in Mesoamerica and other parts of the world.

One of the key messages of the website is to share how the Maya still use a sophisticated calendar system based on astronomical observations to organize their lives in concert with the cycles of the cosmos. The Maya Calendar System was designed to unlock the mysteries of the universe, a yearning that is held in common by all humankind throughout time and across cultures.

The Living Maya Time website provides a unique opportunity to display the museum’s Maya collection in the context of science and mathematics. The multimedia website provides accessible and fundamental background on the Maya Calendar System and contemporary Maya cultural practices, while offering educational activities for middle-school classrooms focused on Maya math and astronomy. The unique learning opportunity afforded by the Living Maya Time website allows the Maya of today, and Latinos generally, to intimately know the astronomical legacy to which they belong and their place in the story. Maya perspectives are shared through a series of video interviews, along with the scholarship of leading experts who have studied the Maya Calendar System. Students and the public can engage with several interactive tools, including Maya math, a Maya calendar Converter and hieroglyph-decoding tools.

The website’s development team includes Vilma Ortiz-Sánchez, a program specialist at the museum; Isabel Hawkins, an astronomer and science educator; Maya archaeologist José Huchim Herrera; Maya cultural astronomer Alonso Méndez; Maya elder María Ávila Vera; and Jean Molesky-Poz, a professor of religious studies at Santa Clara University and author of the book Contemporary Maya Spirituality: The Ancient Ways Are Not Lost. The project received $64,500 in federal support from the Latino Initiatives Pool, which is administered by the Smithsonian Latino Center.

About the Museum’s Collection

The museum’s collection of more than 800,000 objects includes a rich array of artwork, ceramics, sculpture and textiles from indigenous groups in Latin America, particularly the Ancient Maya, whose more than 7 million descendants reside in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, El Salvador and other parts of the world. These objects contain valuable information about the Maya Calendar, either through the depiction of date glyphs from palace and court scenes, or complete dates from the Classic Period, both of which illustrate the significance of time and timekeeping to the Maya.

# # #