Ancient Calendars From Around The World

Archaeologists have uncovered evidence of different calendar systems from around the world. In this post, you will find the YouTube video exploring ancient calendars and a full video transcript (with relevant references and links).

YouTube Video

YouTube Video Transcript

Here, you will find the complete transcript of the video in the previous section with hyperlinked references/citations.

Introduction

January 1st is the first day of the new year, but is it? It is in the Gregorian calendar, but this is only one of thousands of ways to keep time.

In fact, archaeologists have uncovered evidence of different calendar systems from around the world. Sometimes, ancient people even used multiple calendars for different purposes.

Hi, I’m Dr. Smiti Nathan, and I’m an archaeologist and in this video, we’re going to explore ancient calendars from around the world and the intriguing information they can reveal.

Maya

Two thousand years ago, in the ancient Maya world, people started using a 260-day divination calendar, which is believed to be one of the oldest known calendar systems in the Americas.

This calendar system had two main elements:  a number and an animal, with that animal usually representing a certain day in the calendar.

At a Mayas site in San Bartolo, Guatemala, archaeologists recovered fragments of a mural with Mayan hieroglyphic writing. The fragment contained a seven above a deer head and likely represents a certain day in the 260 day calendar.  It’s possible that this fragment was a label for a larger mural, perhaps marking an event that happened on a certain day, but that larger mural has sadly been lost.

Now calendar connections between animals and humans are quite ancient. 

Europe

Let’s take a look at Europe, 37,000 years ago. It was the Upper Paleolithic, the last major Ice Age was happening, and we were making some pretty spectacular cave art.

In fact, hundreds of cave paintings from this period have been found across Europe.

Some of them have become quite famous, like Lascaux, Chauvet, and Altamira.

In a recent study, archaeologists examined paintings from around 400 caves across Europe, especially in France and Spain and found something really interesting. paintings, they consistently observed a series of lines, dots, and other symbols alongside drawings of animals.

The archaeologists think that our Paleolithic ancestors were documenting successful past hunting seasons and possibly maintained some sort of calendar based on seasonal migrations of certain animals like aurochsen and deer.

Archaeologists who study cave art also have suggested that ancient calendars based on annual cycles of animals may have also been based on the annual cycles of the moon.

China

Now the moon is a common and important basis for many calendar systems around the world. In Shang China, time, ritual and the moon were super closely related, and in many cases, calendars served multiple purposes.

Archaeologists and historians have reconstructed calendar systems from inscriptions on tortoise shells and cow bones that were part of virtual practices starting over 3, 000 years ago.

Experts believe that the markings on bones and shells represent a 10-day week with a 30-day month based on the lunar cycle.

This calendar system likely served as a way to keep track of not only important ritual schedules, but also to mark the changing of the seasons.

When it comes to objects in the sky, ancient people didn’t just look at the moon. 

Armenia

Let’s take a look at ancient Armenia. This region has a deep history of astronomical observation. Archaeologists and historians have studied ancient rock art, figurines, and maps that reveal how knowledgeable ancient Armenians were about the cosmos. Even ancient Armenian writing contained elements of celestial symbolism.

When it comes to calendars in ancient Armenia, they’re based on the stars.

The beginning of the Armenian Haykian calendar changed year to year, but the major holiday, Navasard, was fixed. It was observed when the constellation Hake, also known as Orion, rose in the sky.

While animals and celestial bodies definitely influenced many ancient calendars, there were other aspects of the ancient world that influenced calendars as well.

Egypt

Let’s take a look at ancient Egypt, which was home to many calendar systems.

The Nilotic Calendar was developed thousands of years ago, around the time that many mobile hunter gatherer communities in the plains of Egypt began to settle in one location and practice agriculture.

Many scholars believe that the Nilotic Calendar is based on the Nile River, and one year would be the time between two floods. 

A fragment from a nearly 5,000 year old stone tablet contains Egyptian hieroglyphic writing referencing the timing of the reigns of two kings and when they occurred. The way time is talked about seems to relate to the flooding of the Nile.

This is a pretty important phenomenon to pay attention to when you’re growing things like wheat, barley, lentils, chickpeas, and other crops.

Recent research highlights that the Nilotic Calendar and the Nile were important to denote years, but other reference points were used for other time units.

For example, moon phases were tracked and likely denoted months within a year.

Gregorian Calendar

The use of multiple reference points to create a calendar has been observed around the world and across time.

It’s part of the calendar system that we primarily use now. The Gregorian calendar, which is commonly used across the world today, is based on the movements of the sun and moon. This timekeeping system was introduced by Pope Gregory VIII in the year 1582.  

Archaeologists and historians have shown that even though the Pope intended for the whole world to follow the Gregorian calendar system upon its introduction, it took tens or even hundreds of years for this calendar to take hold.

 And in many places today, the Gregorian calendar is used alongside culturally important calendars.

Other Calendars

So while January 1st is the first day of the New Year in the Gregorian calendar, other calendars mark their New Year differently. For example, the lunar calendar is used in China, Korea, Vietnam, Japan, and other countries.

And the lunar new year is marked by the first new moon of the lunar calendar, which is typically in late January to mid-February. Also, the Hebrew calendar places the new year on the first day of its seventh month, which falls in September or October.

There can also be regional variation within calendar systems.

For example, panchangam is a Hindu calendar used by many folks in South Asia, and it’s based on the phases of the moon. But in my ancestral region of India, Kerala, the Hindu calendar here, commonly known as the Malayalam calendar, is based on the cycles of the sun.

Outro

As it turns out, the history of calendar systems is just about as diverse and complex as the history of humans. Now, if you’re curious about the methods that archaeologists used to figure out what was going on in our diverse and complex human past, check out this playlist here. That’s all for this video, and we’ll see you in the next one. Bye!

Credits

Anya Gruber: Co-Producer, Researcher, Scriptwriter

Noor Hanania: Lead Video Editor

Smiti Nathan: Director, Co-Producer, Support Video Editor


If you enjoyed this post, check out my channel and other videos.

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Smiti Nathan

I’m an archaeologist that travels around the world for both work and pleasure. I have a penchant for exploring ancient and modern places and the people, plants, and foods entangled in them. I write about archaeology, travel, and productivity.

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