Chapter 4

New Windows on the World:

Working the Land and Sailing the Sea

               The first clear evidence of agriculture appears in Soconusco during the period which archaeologists have called the Locona (1650-1500 B.C. What is not so clear, however, is whether the earliest cultivated plants were roots and tubers, such as manioc and sweet potatoes, or seed crops, such as maize, beans, and chiles. Certainly there is little question but that roots and tubers would have been easier for incipient farmers to cultivate because they are propagated from shoots and will grow under a wide variety of soil and moisture conditions, as Sauer has pointed out (1952); on the other hand, by the end of the Locona period maize definitely appears to have become the dominant crop, with various beans, chiles, and squashes supplementing the diet as well. (To commemorate the agricultural origins of the hierarchical society which arose in Soconusco at this time, Clark [1991, 13] suggests naming the people of the Early Formative cultures of the region the Mokaya, which is an anglicized version of a Mixe-Zoque word meaning "corn people.") (See Table 2 in Chapter 2 for a chronology applicable to the entire Mesoamerican area.) It is also likely that by this same time cacao, a tree native to Soconusco, was being appreciatively exploited to prepare a "drink of the gods," at least for the noble elite of the society.

               Although there is little reason to assume that the transition from a hunting-gathering-fishing-fowling economy into one where farming had become the main source of subsistence was anything other than gradual and unspectacular, during the Locona period cultural influences emanating from Soconusco began to spread northward and westward through the Tehuantepec Gap into the highlands of Oaxaca and the lowlands of the Gulf coastal plain. Archaeological evidence for this expanding sphere of interaction comes inevitably from such tangible artifacts as ceramics, but by no means were the cultural influences necessarily limited to them. We have already briefly noted that the earliest ceramics in Mesoamerica demonstrate three distinct geographic foci, only one of which was in Soconusco (the other two, you will recall, were in the central highlands of Mexico and on the northern coast of Veracruz); but if any of these foci was the recipient of influences from further afield, such as Central and South America, it would most likely have been Soconusco.

               Now, while one does not have to predicate the beginnings of pottery in Mesoamerica on diffusion from South America, not to do so is to unnecessarily complicate its evolution in the Mexican arena. Indeed, in view of the complex life history of the maize plant as worked out by Mangelsdorf, it appears that regular and repeated contacts between Mesoamerica and the west coast of South America were already commonplace by at least 2000 B.C. (On the Atlantic side of the Americas, migrants from South America are known to have been island-hopping into the West Indies as early as 5000 B.C. (Adams, 1991, 43).

               It would not be unreasonable, therefore, to suggest that sometime around 1500 B.C. the peaceful isolation of Soconusco may have been brusquely punctuated by the arrival on its shores of alien seafarers borne on large sail-bedecked log rafts. Although they came not as conquerors or religious missionaries, their arrival signaled the collision of two different worlds as surely as did the arrival of the Europeans on the opposite coast of the Americas some 3000 years later.

               The newcomers may well have hailed from coastal Ecuador, which had access to timber resources for raft construction that were lacking farther to the south; in any case they were the cultural heirs of the civilizations which had arisen in the exotic river valleys of desert Peru perhaps some 800 years earlier. (The Cerro Sechín culture, now recognized as the forerunner of the so-called Chavín civilization, has been dated to 2300 B.C.) The ceramics which they brought with them -- subsequently labeled as "Ocós" after the seacoast settlement near the mouth of the border river (Rio Suchiate) between Mexico and Guatemala, which was first uncovered by the excavations of Michael Coe in 1960 -- were initially likened to the Chorrera pottery of southern Ecuador. Gareth Lowe, in his studies of Barra pottery somewhat later (1967), also saw South American antecedents for the Ocós ceramics. However, more recent research has called into question the dating of both the supposed South American donor cultures and the Mesoamerican recipient cultures, so the spread of pottery into the region may not have been as simple a south-to-north diffusion as first thought.

               Whether or not the incipient, out-reaching civilizations of western South America provided the stimulus for sophisticated forms of pottery to the burgeoning chieftainships of Soconusco, it seems likely that these civilizations would have had other, perhaps even more earthshaking influences on these pullulant societies, for ideas travel as easily as objects or commodities. Similarities have been noted by some scholars in the religious motifs of the Andean area and the so-called Olmecs of Mesoamerica, so one cannot rule out the introduction of such influences. Indeed, it is not impossible that, interwoven in this religio-spiritual exchange, there may have been some measure of narcotic export, for Chavín was itself a key way station in the coca network emanating in the Amazon basin. Nor is it likely that these southern seafarers returned home empty-handed, for the timing of the Ocós contact coincides closely with the ultimate breakthrough of maize as the staple crop of the Americas. Thus, the return cargo may have included not only new and improved varieties of corn but also such highly prized commodities as cacao, quetzal feathers, and rubber, all of which Soconusco produced in abundance.

Figure 7.

Because of its wealth of exotic commodities, such as cacao, quetzal feathers, and rubber, Soconusco early became a nexus of trade routes on both land and sea. Undoubtedly one of the primary routes of movement since time immemorial has been along the Pacific piedmont, stretching northward into the heart of Mexico and southward into Central America. The rugged terrain back of Izapa most likely encouraged traders moving inland to utilize the Motozintla Pass, through which access to both the Grijalva Depression and the highlands of Guatemala could be gained. Sea contacts with South America had probably already been made ca. 1500 B.C. by residents from the 0cós area and northward along the coast as well.


               The Ocós phase (1500-1350 B.C.) may well have marked Soconusco's introduction to the world, at least to the expanding trade network of South America's developing civilizations. As such it was a period of unprecedented commercial activity and intellectual ferment.  What had been a relatively somnolent, self-contained, and self-satisfied society whose horizons were limited by the mountains on the north and the unending ocean on the south had suddenly been thrust into contact with peoples of more advanced culture from "beyond the sea." just knowing that they existed must have been a catalyst to engendering an entirely new "world view" among the thinking elite of Soconusco. Surely, life could never again be the same.

               Although it is impossible to assign an accurate date to it, there is a carved stone set into the middle of the north wall of the ball court at Izapa (identified as Stela 67) which unmistakably portrays some aspect of Soconusco's early maritime contacts. (It should be noted that the archaeologists who excavated Izapa argue that almost all of the monuments found at the site were carved and set in place after 300 B.C. [Lowe, Lee, and Martinez, 1982, 231.) Whether these contacts were of an explorative or a commercial nature we will probably never know, but the depiction in question is both simple and graphic. It shows a (bearded?) man with arms outstretched standing in a boat crossing a body of water in which fish are portrayed beneath the waves and two long-nosed wind-gods are shown blowing from opposite directions. In the man's right hand is a cross. While some viewers of the carving are immediately tempted to see the latter as a Christian symbol, it could, of course, represent a cross staff, which was an early navigational device. Naturally, how the carving is interpreted has a material bearing on the age which is assigned to it. In any event, it is obvious that the only navigable body of water within reach of Izapa is the Pacific Ocean (had canoe traffic through the coastal lagoons been depicted, it is unlikely that either waves or wind-gods would have played any part in the scene), but whether the carving testifies to a transpacific voyage or some coastal venture there is no sure way of knowing.


The 260-day sacred almanac

As long as the people of Soconusco gained their livelihood from hunting, gathering, fishing, and fowling, there was little need to take cognizance of the rhythms of nature, except in the most general way. Surely, everyone was familiar with the fact that the animals of the forest mated at certain times and not at others; that some of the trees of the forest flowered before the rains began; that sometimes the offshore current moved from the "left hand" and at other times from the "right"; that sometimes the sun rose over the sea and sometimes over the land; and that the migrations of the turtles along the coast or their trek up on the beaches to lay their eggs coincided with certain of these "signs" and not with others.

Figure 8.

In the middle of the north wall of the ball court of Izapa is this carving of a (bearded?) man standing in a boat with a cross in one of his outstretched hands. In the waves beneath the boat fish are depicted, and on each side of the boat long-nosed wind-gods blow from opposite directions. In the inventory of monuments made at the site, this was catalogued as Stela 67.

               Even as they had consciously begun to collect the shoots of the manioc root or the sprouts of the sweet potato (both, by the way, of South American origin) and stick them in the ground, it mattered little whether they did so before or after the rains came. Manioc root grew very readily, and as long as it was well cooked before it was pounded into paste and made into dough-balls or tortillas, it could be counted on to still the pangs of hunger whenever the hunters, fishers, or fowlers came home empty-handed.

               On the other hand, it was quite another matter when the serious cultivation of maize began (most likely around 1500 B.C.). Although there never was a problem with adequate warmth in Soconusco, to have attempted to plant corn during the dry season was to flirt with disaster. Even a mistake of a few weeks would mean that the seeds would dry out and die before they could start to germinate. If, on the other hand, the would-be maize farmer waited too long before planting his seed, the rains would begin with a vengeance and then the likelihood of even getting the seed into the ground without having it wash away would be minimal. Thus, while maize held out the promise of a heavier yield and a tastier and more nutritious foodstuff, it also demanded a greater awareness of the timing of the life-giving rains. To realize this promise, it was now imperative, as never before, to understand the cycle of the seasons.

               But where in the random chaos of Soconusco's nature could the careful observer discern the first semblance of order or pattern? Certainly, changing directions of ocean currents and the migratory habits of birds or turtles may have offered some clues, but they were too imprecise a basis on which to establish an agricultural timetable. The answer most likely had to be found in the movements of the sun itself, because it could be seen to shift its positions of rising and setting from far out over the ocean to well up beyond the mountains with a slow, day-by-day regularity. And, in the process, there were two days during this solar migration when the sun passed directly overhead -- once on its journey from the sea to the land and once on its way back again.

               Anyone who made a conscientious effort to mark this rhythm -- and obviously some curious skygazer with the luxury of time at his disposal did -- would have realized that the most effective way to calibrate the sun's zenithal passage was with a simple upright pillar or post (i.e., a gnomon). At noon on the days on which the sun passed directly overhead, the pillar would cast no shadow whatsoever, whereas on any other days of the year that would not be the case. Therefore, once the zenithal position of the sun had been ascertained, a precise "date" could be assigned to it. However, either of the two days when the sun was directly overhead was theoretically as good as the other on which to begin the count; why, therefore, should the skygazer prefer one of these days to the other?

Table 3 - Dates of Zenithal Sun Positions within Mesoamerica

Latitude (ºN)

Southward Passage

Northward Passage

Days Elapsed N-S

Days Elapsed S-N


August 18

April 24




August 17

April 26




August 15

April 27




August 14

April 29




August 12

May 1




August 10

May 2




August 8

May 4




August 7

May 6




August 5

May 8




August 3

May 10




August 1

May 11




July 30

May 13




July 28

May 16




July 26

May 18




July 23

May 20




July 21

May 23



Note: At the latitude of Izapa (14.8º N) the zenithal sun is overhead on August 13 on its southward passage and again on April 30 on its northward passage. These passages result in intervals of 105 days when the sun is north of Izapa and 260 days when it is south of Izapa.


               Of course, his choice could have been perfectly arbitrary. But more likely, it was conditioned by another natural phenomenon of which he could hardly have been ignorant. By sheer coincidence, a night or two before the southward passage of the vertical sun, the sky was literally bombarded with shooting stars which had their apparent origin in the northeast. This was the annual Perseid meteor shower, occasioned by Earth's passage along its orbit through a rain of stellar debris which takes place every August. Thus, our skygazer would have been witness to celestial fireworks which are virtually unequaled throughout the rest of the year, beginning usually on the night of August 11 but decidedly reaching their climax on the evening of August 12. The following day at noon, August 13, the sun passes through the zenith over Soconusco.

Figure 9.

The zenithal sun makes its southward passage over latitude 14º.8 N on August 13 and its northward passage over the same parallel 260 days later on April 30. Located along this line are both the Classic Maya site of Copán, hypothesized as the birthplace of the sacred almanac by Nuttall in 1928, and the Formative site of Izapa, first identified by the author as the hearth of the calendar in 1973.


               The signs were therefore unmistakable. First the heavens would give their notice. All night long the skygazer would watch as stars burst from behind the towering mountains to the northeast and flashed across the sky. And the following morning, as the sun arched higher and higher across the heavens, he would watch as the shadow it cast grew steadily shorter, until, as the sun reached its zenith, its shadow completely disappeared. This then, he decided, was the day for his count to begin.

               On the other hand, our skygazer was faced with something of a philosophical dilemma. Counting days was an entirely new experience, because up to now if it had been necessary to enumerate anything, it may have been only such things as fish, or cacao beans, or quetzal feathers -- all items which arc discrete entities. Now that the day for starting the tally had arrived, the skygazer had to decide when in the day it actually became "Day 1".  Certainly not at noon, because that was in the middle of a day that was still in progress. For someone accustomed to think in terms of entities rather than fractions, it was no more logical to conceptualize a part of a day than it was a part of a fish, a cacao bean, or a quetzal feather. It therefore must have seemed obvious that the day could not be counted until it was completed, that is, at sunset. In any event, this is the pattern of thought which Mesoamericans were to employ in all their subsequent mathematical computations. Like the odometer on an automobile recording the distance traveled, a unit of time measurement was not counted until it had been completed.

               From clues in the internal structure of the Mesoamerican calendar, the event just described appears to have taken place about the middle of the fourteenth century B.C. (Confirmation of this date may be obtained by correlating the Maya calendar with our own using the Goodman-Martínez-Thompson value of 584,285. This reveals that the beginning day of the 260-day sacred almanac, 1 Imix, coincided with August 13 in the year 1359 B.C. Remember, too, that because historians do not recognize a "year zero," as astronomers do, when the designation "B.C." is employed it represents a date one year older than the minus value which the latter use. Thus, 1359 B.C. to a historian is -- 1358 to an astronomer.)

               An interval of 260 days is, of course, divisible in many ways, and among the peoples of Mesoamerica two of the most common ways of grouping numbers were in "20's" and "13's." Both of these numbers can be thought of as global, or universal, "givens" known to virtually every people in the world. Obviously, the former module was the first to be discovered by humankind, for it represented a simple inventorying of an individual's own fingers and toes. The second module was much less obvious -- at least, that is, until humankind began trying to measure time; then the importance of "13" quickly manifests itself, for this is the number of full moons within a "year." It is definitely possible that a lunar count of sorts was already in use in the Soconusco region, but if so, like all lunar counts it lacked the precision which our skygazer was hoping to achieve. In any case, the point that I am making is that it must have seemed quite logical for him to count in groups or "bundles" made up of either 13 or 20 days, and to assign each day in the "bundle" its own number and name.

               Having started with the southward zenithal passage of the sun, the count was to continue until the sun once again passed overhead on its way northward. Depending where in Soconusco one was, that next shadowless passage took place about 260 days later -- or as chance would have it, just as the skygazer was nearing the end of his 20-day count for the 13th time. (According to our modern calendar, this occurs on April 30.) Of course, the resolution of the 260-day cycle into these two key multiples may not have been totally a matter of chance. If, for example, our skygazer's initial count had been carried out at Chantuto -- one of the coastal lagoons where some of the earliest population concentrations of Soconusco have been found -- it may have produced an unwieldy interval such as 261 or 262 days between zenithal sun passages. In that event, he may have realized that a slight shift in geography would be repaid by a result which was mathematically far more harmonious. However, the temptation to move southward along the coast to find such a location was not great, because in that direction -- once past Altamira -- the protected lagoon environment was quickly replaced by long open beaches of wave-swept volcanic sand. By contrast the lush, well-watered slopes of the foothills must have seemed wonderfully attractive. Indeed, there is good evidence that the initial occupation of the area surrounding Izapa was already under way by 1500 B.C. (Ekholm, 1969, 19). It seems very likely, therefore, that if the felicitous 260-day interval had not been discovered quite by chance at a coastal site such as Altamira, a conscious decision must have been made to calibrate that interval at Izapa. And if that is true, then the choice of Izapa's location can well be cited as one of the first illustrations of applied astronomy and mathematics in the New World.

               Having now "massaged" his count into workable modules, the skygazer had next to develop a system for identifying the individual days. (Because we do not know what the skygazer called the days of his count, we will use the terms that have come down to us from the Aztecs -- who were his most recent heirs.) By assigning each day a number -- never to exceed 13, but coupling it with one of 20 different names (signifying, for example, an animal, a plant, or a force of nature) -- it would be possible to give it a unique identity within the 260-day count. Thus, beginning with "1 Alligator" and continuing with "2 Wind," "3 House," "4 Lizard," and so on, the count would run through its 13 numerical permutations of its 20 day-names and once again reach "1 Alligator" at the next zenithal Passage.

               So far so good. But as the skygazer continued his count, he may have been surprised to note that the third time he recorded a shadowless noon it was on a day he had labeled "1 Snake" instead of "1 Alligator." It is more likely, however, that he was well aware that the duration of the sun's journey to the north was considerably shorter than it was to the south, and perhaps he had already concluded that it was more realistic to measure time in "bundles" of 13 rather than of 20 days. The reason for thinking this is that, on this third passage of the zenithal sun, the elapsed time could not be evenly factored into any whole number of 20-day "bundles," but it could be conceived as 8 "bundles" each of 13 days duration. In any case, the cyclical regularity of such a pattern must have been reassuring: each interval of 20 13-day "bundles" in the south being followed by 8 13-day "bundles" in the north. Each time the zenithal sun passed overhead on its way south, a new 260-day cycle would begin on a day numbered "1" but with a different name. Thus, the skygazer watched as the beginning of each successive cycle shifted from " 1 Alligator" to " 1 Snake" to "1 Water" to " 1 Reed" and then to " 1 Earthquake." Only when the sun finally came back on its sixth round to "1 Alligator" again did he probably breathe a triumphal sigh of relief to think that he had mastered the secrets of its movements after all.

               What the skygazer had discovered was that the cycle of the sun could be charted as 28 "bundles" of 13 days, with its zenithal passage alternating in groups of 20 and 8 "bundles" which repeated themselves every fifth time around. (With his discovery of the module of 28 "bundles," the Mesoamerican skygazer had unknowingly joined company with a small community of wise men searching the skies of India for similar clues to the cycles of the heavens. At about the same point in time and half a world away in distance, Vedic priests had also discovered the module of "28," only they used it in charting the motions of the moon rather than the sun. To them it appeared that the moon "rested" or "resided" for a period of 13 days in each of 28 "lunar mansions" as it moved across the sky during the course of a year.) Surely, anyone in Soconusco seeking to grasp the celestial rhythms could not fail to be impressed by the ingenious simplicity of the skygazer's formula. Here was a tool for alerting the farmer to the beginning of the rainy season that was easily understood by everyone: The rains would start on or about the time of the sun's northward passage (April 30), and the corn would be ready to harvest by the time of its southward passage (August 13). In short, it seemed that the skygazer had unlocked one of the most important secrets of the heavens.

               That such an annual cycle must have had overwhelming significance to the early farmers of Soconusco is borne out by the seasonal rhythms that continue to dominate the lives of the local peasants in that region to this day. When Thomas Lee interviewed the native farmers in the vicinity of Izapa in 1964, he learned that they managed to obtain two corn crops a year without irrigation. The principal crop, the temporada was planted in the last part of April or early May, just ahead of the beginning of the rainy season -- and concurrent with the northward passage of the zenithal sun. Throughout the months of May, June, and July the rains would increase in intensity, and during this period of concentrated heat and humidity the farmer and his family were obliged to weed the corn every 20 days to keep down the competing vegetation. At the end of July the crop was ripe enough to break the stalk (a process called doblada or dobla), which terminated further growth in the plant and allowed the husk both to shed rainwater and to begin drying. The harvest of dry corn was begun in mid-August -- at the time of the southward passage of the zenith sun -- with the cobs being stored in an open bin.

               The second crop, or segunda was planted during the first three weeks of September (just before the autumnal equinox), the seeds being sown between the standing stalks of the temporada. Twenty days later the corn patch would be weeded and the stalks would be cut down. By December, just in time for the winter solstice, the dobla would take place, and during January the second crop would be harvested. On average, the yield of the segunda was about one-third less than that of the temporada, but field work was also less at this season. Though religious rituals marked each of these milestones of the agricultural year, Lee discovered that there were definitely more fiestas to be celebrated while the segunda was growing, because it demanded far less time and effort to produce. Thus, calendar, livelihood, and ritual all seem to have been closely interwoven from the very beginning (Lowe, Lee, and Martinez, 1982, 71-72).

               If for no other reason than that the skygazer had (apparently) solved one of the fundamental riddles of their universe, he was hailed as a person of special insight, of uncommon intelligence, and one who enjoyed the favor of the gods because he had been allowed to share in the mysteries of the world. That he should have been exalted by the common people is scarcely any surprise. Although they may not have understood the significance of his discovery, they could not fail to be awed by its results. Knowledge was indeed power, and the skygazer would soon become an individual of respect and authority perhaps equal to or exceeding that of the "big man" or chieftain who exercised political control over the society -- that is, if they were not already one and the same individual.

               Whether any organized religion had existed before this time is difficult to know for sure. Certainly the invocation of magic to insure the success of the hunt or of the fish catch must always have been a part of the people's ritual life. In the same way, they must have worshiped or at least attempted to placate the forces of nature over which they had no control: the fiery eruption of volcanoes, the violent shaking of the earth, the cataclysmic waves which on occasion rolled in from the sea, the tempestuous storms which periodically lashed the coast, the frightening disappearance -- however temporary -- of the sun or moon during an eclipse, the fearsome strength and awesome beauty of the night-stalking jaguar, the "evil spirits" that caused people to sicken and often to die for no apparent reason. Even within their earthly paradise, there were numerous aspects of the people's surroundings which challenged their understanding. It was small wonder, then, that they so willingly entrusted the ministrations of these forces and spirits to that special elite of wise men in their midst who functioned as shamans or priests.

               Again, ceramic evidence may shed some light on the nature of the Soconuscans' early religious beliefs. We have already spoken about the numerous representations of obese males, or man-animal figures which have been interpreted as supernatural or shamanistic symbols of authority. In contrast to these are the literally hundreds of clay figurines of voluptuous nude women which have been found (Clark et al., 1987, 11 ). In these, a naturalistic depiction of the female body has been accompanied with detailed attention to hairstyles and jewelry, giving them a vibrant, erotic quality. It is probable, therefore, that in the initial stages of Soconusco's cultural evolution the presence of a fertility cult may well have constituted one of the people's principal forms of religious expression.

               What is certain is that once a method for reckoning time was developed it allowed for more formalization of religion to take place. Now the celebration of periodic rituals or ceremonies could be scheduled and/or orchestrated in advance. Special days could be set aside for religious observance, with different spirits or forces being accorded recognition at different times of the year. The very days themselves, with their identities distinguished by numbers and names, acquired "personalities" -- some auspicious, some malevolent, and some neutral. It soon came to be believed that a person had his or her personality and fortune determined by date of birth. In short, possibly within the span of a single generation the calendar became an integral part of the people's spiritual and private lives, for almost all aspects of their existence seemed to be bound up with time and its cyclical patterns.

               The ready adoption of the 260-day sacred almanac by the common people gave the practice of religion a new currency and centrality in their society -- and the priestly caste a new stature and prominence. The importance of knowing how to maintain the day-count, when to schedule the proper rituals, and how to interpret the auguries of the different events that occurred could no longer remain the property of a single skygazer. To allow for the continuance and transmittal of this knowledge, it must be passed on to other and younger members of the society in an orderly fashion. Because theirs was a preliterate society, this was most likely done through the rote memorization of passages pregnant with meaning -- perhaps in the form of rhyming verses to serve as mnemonic devices --  a sort of poetry laced with scientific knowledge. Numerical records, on the other hand, could have been kept as tallies of ticks marked on a wooden board with a piece of charcoal, just as shamans in the mountains of Guatemala continue to do to this day.

               But these "secrets" could not be shared with just anyone. If the priesthood was to maintain its own privileged position of power and authority, its fund of knowledge could only be imparted to individuals who could be entrusted to guard it as something exclusive and special -- individuals whose attention and dedication to this knowledge must transcend all of their other earthly concerns. It seems clear that the solution which the priestly caste found to ensure such complete devotion on the part of its young novitiates was not unlike that practiced in other societies elsewhere in the world: remove the worldly distraction of carnal desires by insisting on celibacy and/or sexual abstinence. However, archaeological evidence (from the Olmecs, Zapotecs, and Maya) strongly suggests that verbal injunctions were not insurance enough, and that the price of admission to the priestly caste may well have come to involve castration, if not total emasculation. (There are numerous indications in the art of these peoples that such a practice was not necessarily a fate reserved solely for conquered captives, but that it was also a ritual of a religious nature. Piña Chan, for one, makes reference to this in his final work on the Olmecs (1989, 1911.)

               On the one hand, our skygazing priest must have reveled in the power which his knowledge had given him. His "discovery" had not only brought him heightened respect and enhanced authority personally, but it had also laid the groundwork for the intensification of religious activity and the emergence of an entire social class whose very raison d'étre was the calendar itself. On the other hand, it must have been terribly disquieting for him to realize that, after a few rounds of the calendar, it was not really working as he had first assumed it would. Yes, there were always 260 days between the time that the sun passed overhead on its way south and the time it passed overhead again on its way north. But the days on which these solar passages occurred did not continue to take place on "1 Snake," or "1 Water," or "1 Reed," anymore. Instead they began falling on later days, such as "2 Wind," "3 Deer," and "4 Monkey." Certainly there was nothing to be gained and everything to be lost by admitting that the calendar was defective. This privileged bit of information must surely not be shared with anyone but a member of the inner sanctum.

               But more than that, should the calendar continue to deviate further and further from the observable realities of the meteor shower or the beginning of the rainy season, even the untutored masses would gradually become aware of its shortcomings. Where would the priest's credibility be then? For his own reputation's sake, let alone for reasons of intellectual honesty, he would have to pin down the cycle of the seasons more accurately than he had on this first attempt.

The 365-day secular calendar

               Where the priest had erred, of course, was in concluding that the cycle of the sun could be measured in 28 "bundles" of 13 days. This meant that he had equated its annual migration through the heavens with an interval of 364 days, when in actuality it took about a day and a quarter longer than that. Thus, after only four years had elapsed his count was already off by 5 days. This might go unnoticed by the commoners at first, but certainly, as the error increased with each passing year, it wouldn't be long before "the cat was out of the bag."

               But, if the sun couldn't be pinned down accurately enough by its zenithal passages, how might the priest fix the length of the year with yet greater precision? He knew, of course, that the sun moved across the heavens between two fixed points. At its southernmost extreme, however, the sun both rose out of and set into the unmarked sea, so there was no means of fixing its position there; but at its northernmost turning point, the sun both rose out of and set into the great wall of mountains which towered above Soconusco's inland approaches. By patient observation of the sun as it neared its northern extreme he reasoned that he could find a place from which its turning point could be calibrated against a permanent marker in the landscape -- namely, a mountain.

               Once this idea had occurred to our skygazing priest, he must have quickly set about searching for the vantage point from which this phenomenon could best be observed and against a landmark where it could best be calibrated. The mountains to the northwest were neither so lofty nor so sharply defined as those to the northeast, so the latter would definitely meet his needs better. The peaks on the northeastern horizon were, of course, the cones of a great row of volcanoes that began with them and stretched far to the southeast through what today are the countries of Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. One of these great volcanoes would lend itself splendidly for his purpose; indeed, it promised to add an element of theater to his endeavor because what the priest was preparing to do was to demonstrate that the annual cycle of the sun could be measured by the interval between successive risings of this fiery orb out of the crater of one of the great mountains of fire.

               We can only imagine with what anticipation he approached the "moment of truth," knowing how awestruck his menial subjects would be as it transpired. But, not content with the forthcoming theatrics which would accompany his "discovery," he was also polishing up the details of his new calendar and the means of employing it so that his second attempt at mastering celestial mechanics would be far more successful than his first, less sophisticated effort.

               As his principal modification, he now recognized that the year had 365 days and not 364. But, because he was hampered by a mind-set that failed to recognize fractions (after all, you either have a finger or a toe or you don't!), even if he had been aware that the year was almost a quarter day longer yet, he could not have conceptualized it. He therefore visualized the year as being composed of 18 "bundles" of 20 days each, leaving 5 extra days left over at the end of the year. Each of the 18 "bundles" he recognized as a unit (which we would term a "month," although it clearly had nothing to do with an interval defined by the moon).

               Moreover, he had come up with another ingenious concept, again apparently stimulated by his inability to recognize fractions. Although he understood that his new time-count would begin with the rising of the sun, he was careful to note that the day it was initiating was not really a day until it had finished -- in the same way that even though the zenithal sun passed overhead at noon, the day on which it occurred was not a day by the count until the sun had set. Thus, although there were 20 days in each of his 18 "bundles," he chose to number them 0 through 19. The concept of zero in itself was ingenious, because it didn't just symbolize "nothing"; it really meant "in progress," because until it was "completed," there was no place for 1. And not until day 19 was completed could one speak of the first "month" or "bundle" having been finished. The day literally did not have a discrete identity until it was a matter of history; or, to put it another way, it had not truly existed until it was over!

Figure 10.

The site of Izapa lies on the right bank of the Rfo Suchiate, which today forms part of the boundary between Mexico and Guatemala. In addition to its key latitudinal location with respect to the zenithal sun passages on August 13 and April 30, Izapa is also sited in such a fashion that the position of the rising sun at the summer solstice is marked on the northeastern horizon by the cone of Tajumulco, the highest mountain in all of Central America.


               Although it may have been the skygazing priest's intent to replace his first attempt at a calendar with this second, more accurate version, he probably did not long entertain such a notion. Already accepted and "sanctified" by the use of the masses, the 260-day sacred almanac had assumed such a place in their lives that it could not easily be rescinded. (Its continued prominence in the agricultural and ritual cycle of Soconusco, as demonstrated earlier, is adequate proof of that.) Even if it did not work to predict the coming of the rains, it had already become such a central feature of the people's ritual existence that to attempt to expunge it would have meant demolishing the very underpinnings of their religious beliefs.


Figure 11.

The volcano Tajumulco looms up on the northeastern horizon as seen from Izapa. With an azimuth of 65º, its peak marks the sunrise at the summer solstice (June 22).


               As the summer solstice neared, it was clear that the priest had yet another momentous idea in the back of his mind. Already, at his direction, his scouts had narrowed down the ideal vantage point from which to observe the impending sunrise. So, when his retinue of followers trekked with him up into the foothills on the evening of June 21, it was to a site where the forthcoming "celestial spectacular" could not have gone unappreciated by even the most simple of peasant farmers. The following morning, the glowing disk of the sun rose out of the crater of the loftiest volcano in all of Central America -- Tajumulco, in what is today southwestern Guatemala. And it was on this site -- from where the 260-day sacred almanac and the new 365-day secular calendar could both be calibrated -- that the priest decreed the building of the first great ceremonial center in all of Mesoamerica, a place whose name has come down to us as Izapa.

Figure 12.

Around 1300 B.C. Izapa was probably the only semi-urbanized agglomeration in all of Mesoamerica. It was the direct outgrowth of the appearance of ranked chiefdoms in the Soconusco region, which first emerged some two to three centuries earlier. Through most of its early history it probably functioned more as a religious retreat and pilgrimage site than as a center of population and trade.


               Again, by using the Goodman-Martínez-Thompson correlation value of 584,285, it is possible to fix the date of this event according to our own calendar with perfect accuracy. As I programmed my computer to search for the beginning of the secular calendar, I could confidently start with the correspondence between Maya and Julian dates which Goodman provided us. But in addition, one further assumption was required: that the first day of the 365-day secular calendar -- known to the Maya as 0 Pop --must have coincided with the summer solstice. If we accept that assumption, we find that 0 Pop did in fact fall on June 22 during the years 1324 to 1321 B.C. (i.e., the astronomical years -1323 to -1320). (Of course, were we to employ June 21 as the date of the summer solstice, this would advance the correlation by four years, i.e., 1328-1325 B.C. instead.) Thus, it is entirely conceivable that, as has been sketched out in the scenario above, both the 260-day sacred almanac and the 365-day secular calendar were the product of the same individual -- a "New World Hipparchus," as Sylvanus Morley has termed him -- for the beginning dates of both counts are separated by little more than 30-35 years!

(Return to Table of Contents) (Continue to Chapter 5)