Maya’s Missing Leap Year
The ancient Maya, famed for their elaborate and accurate calendar systems, observed two calendar years, but neither seemed to have bothered with a leap year.
“As far as we know, the people of Mesoamerica—the Maya included—didn’t care about leap years,” said Anthony Aveni, an expert in ancient Mesoamerican astronomy at Colgate University.
The Maya solar year of 365 days was central to the agricultural cycle, while their ritual year of 260 days was critical for determining auspicious dates.
These calendars were carefully designed to synchronize in 52-year cycles, but no effort was made to prevent “drifting” dates.
“They didn’t care if they didn’t have a white Christmas, or if their Fourth of July wasn’t in the summer, to put it in our terms,” Aveni explained.
The Maya instead placed priority on marking the passage of time through additional calendar systems such as the Long Count, which unfolds on a cycle more than 5,000 years long.
“Our philosophy about leap year is a complicated scheme to make the seasons jibe with the calendar,” Aveni said.
The Maya “were more concerned that time should be unbroken, not interfered with, and that the count of time should have continuity,” he said.