Calendars: South American Calendars

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At the time of the Spanish conquest of the New World in the early sixteenth century, the peoples of Mesoamerica and the Andes were living in highly developed civilizations supported by well-integrated political and religious organizations. The Aztec, Mixtec, and Maya of Mesoamerica produced codices in which are described their gods, priests, religious paraphernalia, and so on. Their knowledge was organized by way of an elaborate calendar that bore no relationship to any kind of calendrical system known to the Spanish. The chroniclers soon realized, however, that an important aspect of these Mesoamerican calendars was the repeating succession of 260 days. The 260-day "year" was divided into thirteen "months," each comprising twenty days irrespective of observations of the sun, moon, and other celestial bodies.

Unlike the Mesoamericans, the Andean peoples did not leave codices or a hieroglyphic script (as was used, for instance, by the Maya from their early history onward). They apparently had no tradition of a historical chronology and left no dated monuments. However, a recent analysis of Peruvian quipus knotted strings that were used for various administrative purposesdemonstrates that Andean peoples were capable of highly abstract, mathematical thought. Accordingly, we may assume that the conclusion reached by certain Spanish chroniclers that the quipus were used for calendrical purposes is valid. Indeed, José de Acosta, an early chronicler who thoroughly studied the cultures in both parts of what we now call nuclear America and who compared the Andean and Mesoamerican calendars, favored the Andean system because of its technical accomplishments. Thus it may be reasonable to assume that the political and religious needs of the Andean states crystallized into a common calendrical tradition of a complexity comparable with that of Mesoamerica; but its organizing principles may have been as different from those of the Mesoamerican tradition as these differed from the European.

Accounts by Early Chroniclers

When the Spanish conquistadors entered Cuzco, the capital of the Inca Empire, the Inca territory stretched from what is now northern Ecuador south to Chile and Argentina. Spanish chroniclers have left us some data on the astronomical and calendrical ideas of the people living on the north coast of Peru, a rich description of myths and rituals of Quechua-speaking peoples in central and southern Peru, and some bits and pieces of astronomical and calendrical lore from the Aymara-speaking peoples living around Lake Titicaca. But it was only in Cuzco that the chroniclers became aware of the rich tradition of the Inca's history, myths, and rituals, as well as of their seasonal activities (e.g., agriculture and llama husbandry) and astronomical observations and beliefs about the sun, moon, and stars. Many scattered data of critical importance in the reconstruction of the Inca calendar have survived. Nonetheless, although some chroniclers may have been aware of the importance of some of these data for the reconstruction of the calendar, they themselves recorded little more than the names of the months. They assumed that the Inca calendar comprised twelve months but barely analyzed what kinds of "months" they were in fact dealing with. The actual reconstruction of the Inca calendargoing well beyond the chroniclers' list of twelve namesenables us to realize the magnitude of the debt owed by the Inca to the states and cultures that preceded them: those of Huari, Tiahuanaco, and Chavín in the Andean highlands and those of Nazca, Mochica, and Paracas on the coast. The Spaniards' interpretations of the Inca data provide only a faint idea of what a pre-Conquest calendar might have looked like.

Some seventeen years after the Conquest, Juan de Betanzos became the first chronicler in Cuzco to attempt an account of the months. His description, however, is inextricably interwoven with a recording of Inca history, especially with those events that concern the legendary reorganization of Cuzco after the city had successfully rejected a foreign attack. He intimates the close relationship between Cuzco's calendar and its political organization, an aspect with which he was probably more familiar than any later chronicler. But he leaves the technical problem of the calendrical count unresolved. In 1574, the priest Cristóbal de Molina wrote the first detailed account of calendrical rituals in Cuzco. Juan de Polo de Ondegardo, a lawyer, had probably written a similar report some years earlier, but it was lost. In 1584, the third Council of the Peruvian Church published a shorter version of Polo's calendar; it is this version, or the knowledge of the existence of a longer report, that heavily influenced all later accounts given by the major chroniclers (e.g., Cavello de Balboa, Murua). Only the later indigenous chronicler Felipe Poma de Ayala provides substantial new information on the economic use of the calendar; and yet another indigenous chronicler, Juan de Santa Cruz, refers to the mythological data pertaining to it. The description given in 1653 by Bernabé Cobo, the last chronicler, is probably the most faithful to those of Polo and Molina.

Polo and Molina's Interpretations

Although they themselves do not seem to have grasped the calendrical problem completely, Polo and Molina give us the best evidence with which to evaluate the character of the months. Polo, for example, tells us, "[The Inca] divided the year into twelve months by the moons, and the other days that remained were added to the [different] moons themselves." Polo claims to be speaking of synodical months, that is, those that mark the period between new moons in a sequence independent from the solar year; nonetheless, he says that the eleven days that these twelve months are short of a year were added to the individual months. If he is right on this last point, we can assume that the Inca calendar had solar months, each thirty or thirty-one days long, bearing no connection to the phases of the moon. Polo refers to certain monthly observations of sunrises and sunsets that reinforce this claim. When considered together with important information from Molina, Polo's critical data underscores the fact that the Inca calendar included synodical, as well as solar, months.

According to Molina (1574), the Inca year began with the lunar month marked by the June solstice; this month started with the first new moon after the middle of May. Molina, however, was still using the Julian calendar; his "middle of May" is thus equivalent to May 25 in the Gregorian calendar, which was not introduced to Cuzco until ten years after Molina wrote his account. Accordingly, any month beginning with a new moon after May 25 would include the date of the June solstice, June 21 (Zuidema, 1982a).

Molina then describes the subsequent lunar months, stressing in particular the observations of a new moon and full moon in the fourth month. This was the month in which crops were planted and all women, including the queen, celebrated the moon. Molina then comes to the seventh month, Capac Raymi ("royal feast"), during which noble boys were initiated into manhood. During the eighth month, Capac Raymi Camay Quilla ("royal feast, moon of Camay"), rituals were dedicated to the rains, which would subside in the months to come. Molina's section on the seventh month has a day-to-day account of its ritual events but makes no reference to the moon; the eighth month, however, is described solely in terms of the lunar cycle.

Polo says that Capac Raymi originally began in January but was later moved back to December, the month "when the Sun reaches the last point on its road towards the South pole." Whatever historical information he thought could be derived from this statement, the most satisfactory reading in calendrical terms would be that Capac Raymi ended on the December solstice itself and that Camay Quilla began thereafter. Molina's description of ritual held at the end of Capac Raymi also seems to imply the same conclusion. But if both Polo and Molina were right about the lunar character of the months, then it is possible that a given Capac Raymi may not have included the December solstice at all, for the month of Inti Raymi could have begun just after May 25 (there are 211 days from May 25 to December 22; seven synodical months have only 206). From these data alone we cannot determine exactly how the Inca solved this calendrical discrepancy but we can conclude that they were aware of it and had probably devised a solution.

Later chroniclers, including modern writers, did not take into account Molina and Polo's critical data, although they sometimes opted for either lunar or solar months. Thus Clements R. Markharm (1910) interprets the calendar as consisting of solar months; the first month, he says, starts on the June solstice. John Howland Rowe, on the other hand, in his influential article "Inca Culture at the Time of the Spanish Conquest" (1946) chooseson the authority of Polo, he claimslunar months. Later studies on Inca culture generally follow Rowe's example. These accounts differ by as much as two months in their assessment of the location in the calendar of a particular month, making the relationship between specific ritual and seasonal activities difficult to understand.

Archaeoastronomy at Coricancha

The calendrical problem cannot be resolved on the basis of Molina and Polo's data alone. Fortunately, research on the alignment of certain Inca buildings (Zuidema, 1982a; Aveni, 1981; Urton and Aveni, 1983; Urton, 1981; Ziolkowski and Sadowski, 1984) enables us to evaluate additional types of calendrical and astronomical data. I will mention here the data based on the architecture of the Coricancha ("golden enclosure")properly known as the Temple of the Sunand on the rituals and myths associated with it. Located in the center of Cuzco, the Coricancha included four one-room buildings that served as temples, each facing the other two by two. The more important buildings were said to face the rising sun during the June solstice. But exact measurements by Anthony F. Aveni and myself revealed that the temples face the point on the horizon at which the sun rises on May 25. This alignment not only supports the validity of Molina's data regarding when the Inca year began but also helps us interpret other significant information. For example, in exactly the same direction of the sunrise, but just beyond the horizon, is a legendary place called Susurpuquio, well known for its important role in Inca mythology. It was here that Pachacuti Inca, the king who set the Inca on the road to conquest, had met his father, the sun god, who predicted that he and his people would share a future filled with military success. The direction toward Susurpuquio coincides closely with that of the rise of the Pleiades, the "mother" of all stars. The reappearance of the Pleiades in early June, after they had disappeared from the southern sky for some fifty days, generally marked the beginning of the year for people in central and northern Peru. In Cuzco, the full moon of the month that included the June solstice would have occurred after the Pleiades first rose in the morning sky. The Inca data on the Pleiades, the sun, and the moon replicate in detail the more general Andean concepts of celestial, calendrical, and social order established in relation to the Pleiades; we see here the Inca debt to the Andean cultures that preceded them.

Calendrical Social Division

Another way to further our understanding of the Inca calendar is to analyze the integration that obtained between the calendar and the empire's political hierarchy and its territorial organization. Betanzos cites this integration but gives no technical details on it. An anonymous, but rather early and well-informed, chronicler mentions how Pachacuti Inca, the king who reorganized Cuzco, divided the population of the Cuzco Valley into twelve groups. His purpose was to make each group take "account of its own month, adopting the name and surname of that lunar month, and of what it had to carry out in its month; and it was obliged to come out to the plaza on the first day of its month by playing trumpets and by shouting, so that it was known to everybody" (my translation, from Maúrtua, vol. 8, 1908). Whereas his father had brought order to the observance of lunar months, Pachacuti Inca erected pillars on the horizon from which the sun could be observed. This was an attempt to integrate the months into an account of the solar year.

The Ceque Calendar

Based on original information from Polo, Cobo describes a similar problem with the calendar and establishes the close link between customs of each Cuzco group and astronomical observations. His description is based on an important Andean political concept, which expresses the visual and directional relationship between the political divisions and their political and ritual center. For this purpose the Inca employed a system of forty-two "directions" called ceques ("lines").

The ceques were imaginary lines that radiated from Coricancha to points on the horizon. They were distributed in groups of three over four quarters of the territory; in one quarter, however, fifteen directions, that is, fourteen ceques (in this case, two ceques were taken together as one), were used. The twelve political divisions of Cuzco were individually associated not only with a different group of three ceques but also with one particular ceque in each group. Each ceque linked the division with the location of the land in the valley that it had been given by Pachacuti Inca. Lands in the fourth quarter were also divided between only three divisions; we notice that in this quarter the fourteen ceques were also rebundled into three groups of ceques (which had four, four, and six ceques, respectively).

Each of the twelve political divisions had an important ritual obligation to bring offerings to a cultic place on the horizon. The sun would then arrive at this place, either at sunset or sunrise, sometime during its annual journey. These twelve places on the horizon were called sayhuas ; two extra ones, called sucancas, were necessary to comply with astronomical observations. The ceque system used the whole horizon, although the sun rises and sets in only part of it. Therefore a sayhua or sucanca was not necessarily located along a ceque that stretched between the horizon and the land of the political division that was in charge of its cult. People first worshiped a series of cultic places, called huacas, that were located along the three ceques associated with their division. They would then turn to the corresponding sayhuas, located in another direction, and offer the remains of whatever had been served to the huacas.

Cobo lists the huacas that were served before the sayhuas and sucancas. If this list is complete (328 huacas ), as it indeed appears to be, then it allows us to suggest various calendrical consequences. Although it would not be appropriate here to carry out a technical analysis of Cobo's list, certain general characteristics of such a ceque calendar can be proposed.

One observation of the sun was made along a ceque radiating from the Temple of the Sun: the one toward sunrise on May 25. Perhaps one other solar observation was made along a ceque in the opposite direction. But all other solar observations were done from higher places just outside town. Based on our data on stars and certain huacas in the ceque system, we believe that all risings and settings of stars were observed from the Temple of the Sun. In contrast to the sayhuas upright, manmade stone pillars that were used for observing the sunthe huacas were mostly natural topographical features whose worship was part of a cult to the earth. The rather irregular numerical distribution of the huacas over the ceques and groups of three ceques seems to be conditioned by their calendrical use. The number of huacas on ceques, on groups of ceques, and in each of the quartersreveals that the Inca were concerned with bringing in line the worship of the moon during its full and new phases (these phases occur every twenty-nine and one-half days) with a cult of the sun (the sun is the cause of the moon's phases), as well as with a cult of the stars (against which the moon shifts its position every night). The year can thus be divided into twelve solar months of thirty or thirty-one days each, while the moon will reach the same position among the stars every twenty-seven and one-third nights. Rituals during full and new moons carried out a balancing act between these two cycles related to the sun and the stars; one cycle occurred during the day and the other at night, while the moon can be observed both day and night.

Myths and Legends

Irrespective, however, of where a technical analysis of the ceque calendar leads us, the data given by the anonymous chronicler and by Polo and Cobo allow us to integrate Inca ideas of time and space with their calendrical rituals, legendary history, and myths. Each political division carried out rituals during the particular month after which it was named; we can assume, therefore, that each group's ideas about its function in society, its past, and its origin myths are relevant for an understanding of its rituals. Each group worshiped its own mythical ancestor (in the form of a mummy). Influenced by certain ideas of hierarchical order, the Inca integrated these ancestors into the legendary history of their royal dynasty. This line of thought explains why ten of the twelve political divisions were linked genealogically to the dynasty and were called panacas (collateral lines of descent from the royal family). The remaining two divisions represented the autochthonous population of the valley of Cuzco, which had been conquered by the Inca.

Specific myths about panacas and former kings should help us interpret calendrical rituals. The anonymous chronicler gives us one clue on how to proceed. He claims that each divisionthat is, each panaca took its name from its particular month. Thus we can argue that the highest-ranked panaca, called capac ayllu, was in charge of the initiation rituals of noble youths, who were also called capac churi ("royal sons"). These rituals occurred during the month of Capac Raymi, which ended on the December solstice. Another panaca, called aucailli (the "victory song" that was chanted at harvest time), implying that its rituals were conducted in April. But these examples seem to be more exceptions to than confirmations of the rule, and only one chronicler (Murua) relates a myth explicitly linking two political divisions to certain months of the year and their rituals (Zuidema, 1982b).

What makes the following myth interesting is the relationship it establishes between dynastic legends and myths in Inca culture. Pachacuti Incawho appears in the myth as the son of the first mythical founder of the royal dynastyestablishes a pact with a giant. During a month of heavy rains, the giant comes down on the rushing waters of a river some thirty kilometers from Cuzco. As the rains threaten to destroy the city, Pachacuti, who is characterized in this myth as a brash young warrior, persuades the giant to retreat, and he himself turns to stone. According to the myth, it is because of this pact with the giant that the Inca celebrated Capac Raymi in December. A sequel to the myth deals with the heroic feats of a son of Pachacuti Inca, whose conquests and marriage explain why the Inca celebrated their feast of planting (normally assigned to the month of September, but here to October 1).

Other, more legendary versions of the first myth convert Pachacuti Inca into the ninth king of the dynasty and the giant into his father, Viracocha Inca; it is these conversions that allow us to relate their panacas to specific months. These versions present Pachacuti Inca as the reorganizer of the city, its political system, and its calendar. Both kings are seen as historical persons, but their mythical aspects crystallize them into deities in their own right: they become the thunder god, worshiped by Pachacuti Inca as his personal god, and Viracocha, the god whom the Spanish misinterpreted as the Inca creator god. Viracocha Inca, the king, was thought to be the ancestor of the high priests of Cuzco. It may be suggested here that the giant in the myth should be associated with the society's concerns during the month of March. This was the month in which the priests of the Sun carried out rituals intended to curtail the rains and to prepare for the forthcoming dry season and harvest; they also directed the building of dams in mountain lakes to store irrigation water for use during the dry season.

No dynastic legends like those found at Cuzco were recorded for central Peru by the Spanish chroniclers, who do, however, relate stories of battles, similar to that between Pachacuti and the giant, that were fought between the thunder god and a primordial deity in the times before a great flood.

The story of Pachacuti Inca functioned on two different temporal levels in Cuzco: as a myth that was related to the yearly calendar and as a dynastic legend. It should be observed, therefore, that the temporal sequence was not the same in both cases. In the myth, the giant is associated with a calendrical concern (in March) that followed the one associated with Pachacuti Inca (in December). In the dynasty, Viracocha Inca is the father of Pachacuti Inca. Dynastic interest established a kind of causal link between the legendary versions of the stories told about succeeding kings. But the myths, as seasonal versions of the same stories, did not follow the same temporal sequence.

Here it is probably more the calendrical rituals that, in terms of a closed annual cycle, can bring unity into Inca thought, integrating the cosmological and political aspects of their society. On the basis of the data on Inca months in the chronicles, Henrique Urbano has evaluated the dialectical relationships between the gods Viracocha and Inti (Sun), who symbolize the opposing values of water and fire, respectively. Both are associated with animal symbols: Viracocha with the amaru ("serpent"), which is related to farming and the fertility of the earth, and Inti with the guaman ("falcon") and puma ("mountain lion"), which both represent warfare. In this occurrence, Inti is emblematic of society and of the inside, while Viracocha symbolizes nature and the outside.

Ritual and the Inca Calendar

The analytical value of the data available allows us to study various other aspects of the Andean calendar. One aspect, that of human sacrifice, was of capital importance in the Inca state, establishing political alliances and hierarchical relationships between peoples brought under imperial rule. Victims from all parts of the empire were brought to Cuzco, either to be sacrificed there or to be sent elsewhere to be sacrificed. In journeying to and from Cuzco, they traveled along routes that were as straight as possible and that, like the lines radiating from Cuzco, were called ceques. The data suggest that the system of human sacrifices was integrated into the calendar. Various kinds of animals were sacrificed according to the particular occasion; they were eaten or burned, and their blood was also used. Furthermore, ashes, including those of textiles and other products, were saved so that they could be thrown into rivers at appropriate times of the year.

The most important sacrifices of all, however, were those of llamas. These animals were used for various ritual purposes according to their variety (alpaca, llama, guanaco, vicuña), color, age, and sex. The system of llama sacrifice can be reconstructed (Zuidema and Urton, 1976). Iconographic evidence from the Huari and Tiahuanaco (11000 ce) cultures demonstrates how deeply rooted llama sacrifices were in Andean society.

Another important aspect of Andean culture is that of divination, studied by E.-J. de Durand (1968). However, the numerous data relating to its importance for the calendar have yet to be coordinated.


The Andean calendar as an exact numerical system for computing days in the year did not survive the onslaught of Western civilization. Many rituals and calendrical customs were integrated, however, into the Catholic calendar; many scholars have reported on this syncretism (Urbano, 1974; Poole, 1984). Their studies, as well as the data from numerous monographs on present-day Andean societies, are extremely valuable in helping us to understand the symbolic values of pre-Conquest rituals. Also, the knowledge of astronomy found among present-day Andean peoples has its principal roots in pre-Conquest culture, notwithstanding the fact that their ancestors were able to integrate Spanish learned and popular notions about the sky and weather into their own systems (Urton, 1981).

The amount of ethnohistorical data that is available for reconstruction of the Inca and other Andean calendars is broader and deeper than had previously been assumed. In Peru, indigenous calendrical notions did not have the overwhelming impact on the Spaniards as they had in Mexico. Interestingly, it is those data that did not seem important to the Spaniardsthat did not threaten their missionary and political interests and that lost their significance in colonial society, although they nevertheless happened to be reportedthat are the most helpful in understanding pre-Conquest Andean culture and its calendar.

See Also



Aveni, Anthony F. "Horizon Astronomy in Incaic Cuzco." In Archaeoastronomy in the Americas, edited by Ray A. Williamson, pp. 305318. Los Altos, Calif., 1981.

Durand, E.-J. de. "Aperçu sur les présages et la divination de l'ancien Pérou." In La divination, edited by André Caquot and Marcel Leibovici, pp. 167. Paris, 1968.

Maúrtua, Victor M. Juicio de límites entre el Perú y Bolivia. Lima, 1908. Volume 8 contains the anonymous "Discurso de la sucesión y gobierno de los Yngas."

Molina, Cristóbal de. Ritos y fábulas de los Incas (1574). Buenos Aires, 1947.

Poole, Deborah A. "Ritual-Economic Calendars in Paruro: The Structure of Representation in Andean Ethnography." Ph.D. diss., University of Illinois, Urbana, 1984.

Rowe, John Howland. "Inca Culture at the Time of the Spanish Conquest." In Handbook of South American Indians, edited by Julian H. Steward, vol. 2, pp. 183330. Washington, D.C., 1946.

Urbano, Henrique. "La representación andina del tiempo y del espacio en la fiesta." Allpanchis Phuturinqua (Cuzco) 7 (1974): 910.

Urton, Gary. At the Crossroads of the Earth and Sky: An Andean Cosmology. Austin, Tex., 1981.

Urton, Gary, and Anthony F. Aveni. "Archaeoastronomical Fieldwork on the Coast of Peru." In Calendars in Mesoamerica and Peru, edited by Anthony F. Aveni and Gordon Brotherston. Oxford, 1983.

Ziolkowski, M. S., and R. M. Sadowski. "Informe acerca de las investigaciones arqueo-astronómicas en el area central de Ingapirca (Ecuador)." Revista española de antropología americana 15 (1984): 103125.

Zuidema, R. Tom. "Inca Observations of the Solar and Lunar Passages through Zenith and Anti-Zenith at Cuzco." In Archaeoastronomy in the Americas, edited by Ray A. Williamson, pp. 319342. Los Altos, Calif., 1981.

Zuidema, R. Tom. "Catachillay: The Role of the Pleiades and of the Southern Cross and a and b Centauri in the Calendar of the Incas." In Ethnoastronomy and Archaeoastronomy in the American Tropics, edited by Anthony F. Aveni and Gary Urton, pp. 203220. New York, 1982 (cited as 1982a in the text).

Zuidema, R. Tom. "The Sidereal Lunar Calendar of the Incas." In Archaeoastronomy in the New World, edited by Anthony F. Aveni, pp. 59107. Cambridge, 1982 (cited as 1982b in the text).

Zuidema, R. Tom, and Gary Urton. "La Constelación de la Llama en los Andes Peruanos." Allpanchis Phuturinqua (Cuzco) 9 (1976): 59119.

R. Tom Zuidema (1987)