Monthly Archives: April 2023

What Day is It? Depends on whose Calendar You Consult

Just when you think you know what day it is, along comes this research on the ancient Mayan calendar.

By fifth grade, most schoolchildren know that a week contains seven days, a month contains either 30 or 31 days (or 28 days, in those strange “leap years”), and a year contains 12 months and 365 days.

That seems self-evident, right?

Not so fast.

The quasi- (increasingly) hegemonic calendar long common across the global North and, now, parts of the global South has long had competitors—including the ancient Mayan calendar, which features an 819-day cycle.

What might have motivated Mayan scholars to orient a calendar around 819 days?

New research by anthropologists John Linden and Victoria Bricker from Tulane University suggests intriguing explanations. Ancient Mayans were astute astronomers and mathematicians and, according to Linden and Bricker, calculated human calendrical systems based on cyclical orbits of Mercury, Jupiter, Mars, Venus, and Saturn. The article linked here offers more detailed calculations that, to my non-mathematical eye, sure seem convincing.

When I lived among the Beng in Côte d’Ivoire, I became used to their indigenous temporal system, based on a six-day week. But the Beng also acknowledged the seven-day week of their neighbors, and they easily interdigitated the two systems: every 42 days, a sacred day required special rituals acknowledging the intersection of the two calendars.

In other words, the Beng don’t dismiss alternate calendars as mutually incompatible. Maybe they are better anthropologists than those in the global North who might easily deride the Mayan calendar as quaint but anachronistic.

Science and “Alternative” Science; or, some Quick Meditations on the Virtues of a Feedback Loop

Many non-Western epistemologies and healing systems have long posited close ties between mind, body, and emotion. Or, rather, these outlooks have categorized as a single feedback loop what Western world views, including biomedical science, have long categorized as three distinct zones of experience (not to mention, many sub-zones). Why else would modern science have developed separate specialties for professionals tackling issues with specific body parts, and other professionals tackling “behavioral” challenges, as if body and behavior inhabited different worlds?

Now, “modern” science is discovering what many across the global South have long known: that mind, body, and emotion indeed constitute a single, linked system. A new research study by scientists at Washington University in St. Louis shows “a literal linkage of body and mind in the very structure of the brain.”

With this new research, perhaps those health practices relegated by medical insurance companies to the dismissive category of “alternative” will begin to find their place in what mainstream medical professionals accept as legitimate. Imagine a world in which health insurance plans covered yoga classes, meditation circles, and foot massages—all well-traveled practices in reducing “stress.”

It warms my heart when scientists challenge themselves to rethink basic world views, after strange data unexpectedly show up that don’t support their assumptions.

Say what we will about the blind spots of science—and, yes, there are many. But, at its best, the scientific method organizes itself around its own feedback loop. As such, it contains within it the capacity to exceed itself.

It turns out that the model of feedback loop that underlies the work of many health practitioners across the global South likewise underlies the very scientific method that long disputed the relevance of the feedback loop as a model for human health.

Which means, the premise behind “alternative” medicine underlies the premise behind the scientific method.

Which means, we’re all in this boat together. Either we’re all “alternative” or none of us is. And, the logical conclusion must be: none of us is, because all of us can’t be.