Never Mind the Apocalypse: Earliest Mayan Calendar Found

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THE GIST

- Contrary to popular myth, the Mayan calendar does not foretell doom in 2012.

- The new discovery of elaborate paintings and etchings have been uncovered in the ancient Maya city of Xultun, Guatemala.

- This monumental finding supports the fact that the Maya used cyclical calendars.

The oldest-known version of the ancient Maya calendar has been discovered adorning a lavishly painted wall in the ruins of a city deep in the Guatemalan rainforest.

The hieroglyphs, painted in black and red, along with a colorful mural of a king and his mysterious attendants, seem to have been a sort of handy reference chart for court scribes in A.D. 800 -- the astronomers and mathematicians of their day. Contrary to popular myth, this calendar isn't a countdown to the end of the world in December 2012, the study researchers said.

"The Mayan calendar is going to keep going for billions, trillions, octillions of years into the future," said archaeologist David Stuart of the University of Texas, who worked to decipher the glyphs. "Numbers we can't even wrap our heads around."

A Brilliant Surprise

The newly discovered calendar is complex indeed, featuring stacked bars and dots representing fives and ones and recording lunar cycles in six-month chunks of time. But it wasn't these mathematical notations that first caught the archeologists' eye. William Saturno, an archaeologist from Boston University, was mapping the ancient Maya city of Xultun in northeast Guatemala in 2010 when one of his undergraduate students peered into an old trench dug by looters and reported seeing traces of ancient paint.

The discovery was "certainly nothing to write home about," Saturno told reporters on Thursday (May 10), in advance of releasing details of the murals in this week's issue of the journal Science. Paint doesn't preserve well in the rain forest climate of Guatemala, and Saturno figured that the faint red and black lines his student had found weren't going to yield much information. But he felt he had a responsibility to excavate the room the looters had tried to reach, if only to be able to report the size of the structure along with the paint finding.

As Saturno continued along the old trench to the back wall, he was shocked to run into a brilliantly painted portrait: a Mayan king, sitting on his throne, wearing a red crown with blue feathers flowing out behind him. Another figure peeks out from behind him. On an adjoining wall, three loincloth-clad figures sit, wearing feathered headdresses. One is captioned "Older Brother Obsidian," or "Senior Obsidian," a still-mysterious title. Next to the king, a man painted in brilliant orange wearing jade bracelets reaches out with a stylus, likely identifying him as a scribe. He is labeled as "Younger Brother Obsidian," or perhaps "Junior Obsidian."

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