Nov 182018

Today is the birthday (701 CE) of the Mayan “king” (ajaw), Itzam K’an Ahk II, also known as Ruler 4, which, among other things, gives me the opportunity to present his date of birth in the Mayan Long Count: 7 Men 18 K’ank’in. Of the three extant references to Itzam K’an Ahk’s birth, none mentions his line of descent, suggesting that Itzam K’an Ahk was not his predecessor’s (K’inich Yo’nal Ahk II’s) son, and that he may have been the founder of a new dynasty. In one carving, the ajaw in his name is shown with a turtle ornament on his belt, suggesting that one of his ancestors had the word auk (“turtle”) in his name and was thus of royal blood. Additionally, Stela 40 shows what could be Itzam K’an Ahk’s mother in Teotihuacano dress, suggesting that Itzam K’an Ahk was emphasizing maternal connections to Teotihuacan. This stela was erected exactly 83 Tzolk’in, (about 59 years), following the death of Itzam K’an Ahk I (a former ajaw of Piedras Negras whose name Itzam K’an Ahk II adopted), vaguely suggesting some kind of link between the two.

Itzam K’an Ahk II ascended to power on November 9th, 729 ( 7 Ben 16 K’ank’in). In 749, he celebrated his one K’atun as ruler, an event that was attended by many dignitaries, including a b’aah sajal (“first ruler”) named K’an Mo’ Te’ who had served K’inich Yo’nal Ahk II. The events of this banquet were later recorded by the final ajaw of Piedras Negras, K’inich Yat Ahk II on Panel 3. This carving shows Itzam K’an Ahk II lecturing the interim ruler of Yaxchilan, Yopaat Bahlam II, about Piedras Negras’ local dominance. (This panel has lent support to the belief that during Itzam K’an Ahk II’s rule, Piedras Negras had eclipsed Yaxchilan in power.) The K’atun celebration was followed by another event a few days later, at which Itzam K’an Ahk II performed a ‘descending macaw’ dance and then had a drink made from fermented cacao beans passed around to his guests.

Itzam K’an Ahk II probably engaged in war, since a pyrite disc found in his tomb depicts the severed head of a leader from Hix Witz. It seems likely that Hix Witz was under Piedras Negras’ control, largely based on the disk and because the Maya center is identified on Panel 7, erected earlier by Itzam K’an Ahk I, as a “tributary bearing plumes and textiles” to Piedras Negras.

Itzam K’an Ahk II’s reign was clearly marked by hegemony over neighboring kingdoms. He died on November 26th, 757 ( 7 Kaban 0 Pax) and was buried three days later. According to Panel 3, the burial took place at the “‘mountain’ of ho janaab witz”, which in this context refers to Pyramid O-13. Itzam K’an Ahk II was succeeded by Yo’nal Ahk III on March 10th, 758. Itzam K’an Ahk II’s burial site was venerated by the succeeding kings of Piedras Negras, which has led some scholars to hypothesize that Itzam K’an Ahk II produced a new ruling dynasty, and that the following three kings—Yo’nal Ahk III, Ha’ K’in Xook, and K’inich Yat Ahk II—were his sons.

Itzam K’an Ahk II erected at least five stelae: 9, 10, 11, 22, and 40, of which Stelae 9, 10, and 11 were raised in front of or near Structure J-3. Stela 11, constructed in August of 731, is of the niche variety (meaning it depicts the ruler seated in a small hollow, or niche) and commemorates Itzam K’an Ahk II’s ascent to power. This monument depicts him flanked by witnesses to the ceremonies explored on the stela itself. The expanse in front of the stone slab was a space for offering and supplication, the monument’s bottom depicts human sacrifice. The monument was discovered by Teoberto Maler in two pieces on the ground; the front was well-preserved (even retaining some of its pigment), although the glyphs on the upper right were weathered.

Stela 9 had long been broken into thirds when it was discovered in 1899 by Maler. While these fragments had eroded slightly, the base was later found in situ by the University of Pennsylvania’s University Museum. In the 1960s, looters carted off parts of the monument, namely a portion depicting a captive. Stela 10 is highly eroded, resulting in a loss of detail. In addition to this decay, the head ornament has presumably been lost. Stela 40 contains the depiction of the aforementioned woman dressed in Teotihuacano garb; it shows Itzam K’an Ahk II dispersing something—hypothesized to be either blood or incense—into a “psychoduct” (that is, a vent leading into a subplaza tomb). The female on the stela, denoted only by an “upside down vase” glyph, is likely Itzam K’an Ahk II’s mother.

Given that Itzam K’an Ahk served fermented cacao beans in a drink for his anniversary, the following video on fermenting cacao may be instructive to you. Chocolate served as a drink was reserved for Mayan nobility and the fermentation process is necessary to bring out the chocolate flavor:

Here also is a video on supposedly ancient Mayan cooking styles. It’s a bit touristy, and not in any sense academically rigorous, but it has some interesting moments nonetheless.


Aug 112013


The Mesoamerican Long Count calendar is a very long, cyclic, base-20 and base-18 calendar used by several Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican cultures, most notably the Maya. For this reason, it is sometimes known as the Maya (or Mayan) Long Count calendar, even though it was also used by the Olmec and Aztec.

Long Count Sites

Long Count Sites

Using a modified base-20 tally, the Long Count calendar identifies a day by counting the number of days passed since a legendary Mayan creation date that corresponds to August 11, 3114 BCE in the Gregorian calendar. On this day, Raised-up-Sky-Lord caused three stones to be set by associated gods at Lying-Down-Sky, First-Three-Stone-Place. Because the sky still lay on the primordial sea, it was black. The setting of the three stones centered the cosmos which allowed the sky to be raised, revealing the sun. Let there be light!


The long count was broken down into five components:  b’ak’tun, k’atun, tun, uinal (sometimes winal), and k’in.  As shown in the table below 1 k’in is equivalent to 1 day, 1 uinal is equivalent to 20 days, and so forth. It is essentially a base-20 system except for the fact that 1 tun is only 18 uinal (approximately a solar year).

b’ak’tun k’atun tun uinal k’in
Equals 20 k’atun 20 tun 18 uinal 20 kin
Days 144,000 7,200 360 20 1


Today’s date (11 August 2013) in long count is meaning that today is 13 b’ak’tun  0 k’atun  0 tun  11 uinal  13 k’in since the beginning of the earth in Mayan terms. There has been a certain amount of debate concerning the correlation between the Mayan Long Count and modern calendars, but the system I am using is the most widely accepted. It is known as the Goodman-Martinez-Thompson, or GMT, correlation, not to be confused with GMT meaning Greenwich Mean Time! (see post 10 August). The numbered Long Count was no longer in use by the time the Spanish arrived in the Yucatán Peninsula, although named uinals (months) and numbered k’in (days) were still used in a system known as haab’ that consisted of a year of 18 months each with 20 days. The haab’ year was 360 days long, so 5 days were added each year to bring the calendar in line with the sun.   You can use this site to convert Gregorian calendar dates to Mayan Long Count (and haab’ dates).

Long Count dates are written with Mesoamerican numerals, as shown on the pictured table. A dot represents 1, a bar equals 5, and these can be combined. The shell glyph was used to represent the zero.


The Long Count calendar required the use of zero as a place-holder, and represents one of the earliest uses of the zero in history. There was no zero in the Roman numeral system, and that absence seriously hampered computation. Try doing this simple sum in Roman numerals: MCDXCIX – CCCXXVI = ? (The answer is MCLXXIII if you are interested).

On Mayan monuments, the Long Count syntax is complex. The date sequence is given once, at the beginning of the inscription, and opens with the so-called ISIG (Introductory Series Initial Glyph) which reads in translation “the year-count was revered by the patron of [name of the month]”. Next come the 5 digits of the Long Count, followed by the date in two different Short Counts, plus an optional supplementary set of glyphs containing lunar data for the day, such as the phase of the moon. The text then continues with whatever activity occurred on that date.


The earliest contemporaneous Long Count inscription yet discovered is on Stela 2 at Chiapa de Corzo, Chiapas, Mexico, showing a date of 36 BCE, although Stela 2 from Takalik Abaj, Guatemala might be earlier. Takalik Abaj Stela 2’s highly battered Long Count inscription shows a 7 bak’tun, followed by a k’atun with a tentative 6 coefficient, but it could also be 11 or 16, giving the range of possible dates  as falling between 236 and 19 BCE.


Amateur misunderstanding of the Maya Long Count led to ridiculous prophecies of the world ending on 21 December 2012, the date marking the completion of 12 b’ak’tun. Serious Mayanist scholars dismissed these nonsensical predictions on two grounds. First, there is no hint whatsoever in Mayan records that the end of a b’ak’tun cycle portends anything good or bad.  It is simply the end of a cycle and an excuse for a party much like New Year’s or the turning of a millennium in the West.  Second, 2012 marks the end of only 12 b’ak’tun. There are 7 b’ak’tun more to go before the long count reaches That’s about 2761 years from now. Check back in with me then.


As is well known, the encounter of Europeans with Mesoamerican cultures, especially the Maya and Aztec, vastly diversified fruits and vegetables available.  ALL modern cuisines worldwide rely on vegetables domesticated in the New World.  The Mayans gave the West corn, tomatoes, black beans, chiles, avocados, sweet potatoes, squash, papaya, chocolate, and vanilla.  Here’s a dish I created using only indigenous Mayan ingredients. The annatto adds a fine earthy flavor. Adjust the chiles to suit your abilities with hot stuff. Removing the seeds will reduce the heat. You can use store bought corn tortillas of course, but fresh are best.  You will need a tortilla press to make them yourself. I’ve never had much luck with a rolling pin because the dough is so crumbly.


Black Beans in Tortilla Wrappers

Black Bean Filling


1 cup dried black beans
½ cup fresh corn kernels
1 tbsp vegetable oil
2 finely chopped habanero chilis (or other hot chiles)
1 chopped green bell pepper
1 tsp powdered annatto
2 cups water

chopped tomato and avocado for topping


Soak the beans overnight, inspecting them to be sure there are no foreign materials such as small stones.

Heat the oil over medium high heat in a heavy saucepan.  Add the chile, bell pepper, annatto, and salt to taste, and sauté briefly.

Add the beans and continue to sauté for 2 minutes.

Add the water and bring to a gentle simmer.  Cook covered for about 40 minutes and add the corn to the pot. Cook for another 20 minutes, or until the beans are soft. When the beans and corn are cooked, the cooking liquid should be reduced to a thick coating. Keep warm.

Yield: about 2½ cups

Corn Tortillas:


2 cups (500 ml) masa harina (treated corn flour)
1 ½ cups  (400 ml) warm water
pinch of salt


Slowly mix the corn flour and salt with the water until you have a soft, smooth dough. Don’t make it too moist. Cover the dough with a damp cloth.

Pinch off a golf ball sized piece of dough, flatten it, place it between two squares of waxed paper, and squeeze it flat in a tortilla press.

Heat an ungreased heavy skillet or non-stick frying pan over medium heat.

Gently remove the tortilla from the waxed paper with wet hands and place it in the skillet. Cook for about a minute per side.  You are looking for the tortilla to brown and take on some speckled darker spots.

Remove the tortilla and start a stack on a plate covered with a damp cloth.  Repeat.

Yield:  about 15 tortillas


Place a tortilla on the palm of your hand.

Place 2 tablespoons of beans in a line down the middle.  Top with chopped tomatoes and avocadoes.

Roll up and eat.


If you want to be fancy you can roll them up in the kitchen and place them on a serving plate.  But, even so, you really must eat them with your hands. If you like you can also add a fresh salsa made of tomatoes, chiles, and bell pepper pulsed in a blender or food processor.