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.


  • Sounds like the Beng excel in non-binary thinking. Maybe the American educational system could learn from their creative coordination of worldviews if ideologues would quit attacking the social and behavioral sciences.

  • Yes, indeed, on all counts!
    Binary thinking is the root of so many evils. I think seeing non-binary thinking in action every day in Bengland over the course of nearly two years is one of the things that’s kept me so engaged with the Beng. They tend to have an “it’s both” rather than an “either-or” approach to many levels of existence (not just calendars), from religion to language to medical systems. I continue to find that inspirational.
    Thanks for your comment!

    • Alan Phillips

      Alma, thanks for your comments as well. You have done amazing, ground-breaking, anthropological research over the years. As someone who has been interested in non-binary philosophies of education over the years, I can see how much a struggle it can be to revisit everyone from Spinoza to Dewey in the effort to challenge/ question the limits of “binary” logic in the 21st century. The serious study of culture offers lived, genuine options for people trapped in false dilemmas and either/or despair. Thank you for your thought-provoking (and hopeful 😊) blog space. It is a relief and reminder of real options.

  • Thank you for the kind words. I find the space between blind optimism and sober realism the most productive one for contemplation (at least, for me). I’m glad the blog resonates with you.

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