Tribal Calendars

Tribal Calendars

The advancement of tribal peoples from rudimen­tary to scientific calendars reveals their intent to live a harmonious existence with the celestial bod­ies, and demonstrates the significance of stellar movements for tribal societies in forecasting sea­sons of harvesting, hunting, and fishing times, and ritual observances. These dedicated prehistoric observers of the sky were the precursors of mod­ern astronomers.

Throughout the world, prehistoric astronomers reverently observed “the sacred sky”; their legends were affiliated with the stellar movements in concurrence with the changing seasons. Their attentive tracking guaranteed the precise timings of rituals and times of the year, which not only helped advance their societies toward the institution of accurate calendars but also gave rise to distinct cultures and customs, tribal lifestyles, and worldviews. In the beginning, oral tradition transmitted this knowledge from one generation to the next; the employment of simple measures progressed and diversified into complex and concrete means such as alignment fixtures and symbolic petroglyph recordings. A prestigious position was to monitor these devices and interpret their significance; this responsibility was accorded to a skilled and sanctioned authority, the shamans and priests. Among the Lakota, this was the Keeper of the Counts; among the Zuni, the Sun and Bow Priests; and in the Cherokee tribe, the Day Keeper.

Other planetary cycles were also observed: The Evenks of Siberia tracked the season of the Cosmic Hunt of Ursa Major, or the Great Bear; the Dogon tribe of West Africa kept observations of Sirius; the Pawnee monitored the “White Star Woman” or Venus; the Kahuna Priests of Hawai‘i tracked the 223-month eclipse cycle. Daily measurements of time were overseen according to the available location: The Chacoans calculated the day’s passing via shadow castings upon the pueblo terraces, while the Salish tribes gauged daily time by observing the ebb and flow of tidal fluctuations. The counting of winters appears to be the universal standard for yearly calculations, though some circumpolar peoples counted a winter year and a summer year.

Seasonal Documentation

Tribal astronomers have created artistic engrav­ings and paintings as reminders of seasonal occurrences, such as the carved baton remnant discovered at Lorthet (Hautes-Pyrenees) bearing reindeer, jumping salmon, and two triangles that scholars theorize as seasonal indications; in Alaska, the season of salmon arriving in a thick blanket of fog is represented upon Tlingit totems and longhouses with “Fog Woman”; the Yakutia rock drawings of Siberia illustrate the Cosmic Elk constellation, which appears in March, foretell­ing the return of the sun. The Lakota used painted buffalo hides to record extraordinary astronomi­cal occurrences. Also, star maps on cave ceilings from the Old and New Worlds depict stellar illus­trations, circles within circles for the sun, or ani­mals such as elk to represent constellations.

Knotted cords were frequently implemented to chronicle time; the Peruvians created the quipu, an intricate system consisting of a rope and attached cords with elaborate knot arrangements. In addi­tion, methodical engravings of notches or drilled holes were universally employed for tallying days, months, and even years; such as the notches upon certain kiva walls in Chaco Canyon for lunar and equinox observances, allowing a sunbeam or moonbeam to glide over the markings to record significant days. Scored trees, for instance, were used by Papua New Guinea tribesmen to calculate lunar months; and the scoring of sticks was uti­lized by tribes like the Pawnee for makeshift calen­dars to record days, months, and years. Engraved bone artifacts from the European Upper Paleolithic cultures have been decoded by Alexander Marshack, who posits these markings to be lunar- phasing notations. The Indigenous tribes of the Nicobar Islands utilized chevron hatches and crosshatches for lunar calculations; while on Easter Island the Mamari illustrated tablet represents lunar phases. Winnebago calendar sticks have been used to calculate important dates, such as for planting and for ceremonies.


The tribal concept of time concerning lunar phases can be seen in two devices: a 12-moon/month calen­dar that adds an intercalary moon when appropri­ate to balance the year; and a 13-moon calendar that removes a month when required. With contin­ued observation of the sun and various constella­tions, a standard developed to track a more linear concept for a 365-day year. The Mayans’ and the Chacoans’ celestial concepts envisaged numerous cycles operating simultaneously; for example:

Moon’s phase: 29.53 days

Tzolkin (Mayan): the sacred year (nine 28-day months of gestation) or 260 days

Calendar Round (Mayan): 18,980 days or 52 years

Lunar declination (Chacoan): 18.6 years

Months and Years

The nomenclatures of months (or moonths) tend to be epithets of natural occurrences. For the Tlingits, “when the black bear cubs are born”; for the Sioux, “Moon of Strawberries.” Months were also named for activities: for example, among the Aleuts, “dried skins being eaten due to lack of food,” and the “month of months” when their potlatch celebra­tions took place. The months were also named for the seasons: (Japanese) “Harmony—Happy Spring,” or “Autumn Long Month”; the Japanese year also contained 24 ki or “solar terms.” Many times, months or seasons overlapped one another.

The New Year was celebrated at various times by tribal people; many observed this occasion at spring. For the Tlingit, the initiation of the summer salmon run indicated a new year had begun; the New-Fire celebration in November hailed the new year for the Pueblo people; and the setting of the constellation Pleiades signified the new year for the Cherokee, with celebrations on the following new moon, near the beginning of November.

Archaeoastronomy and Megalithic Calendars

Mountains have been known to represent the cos­mic womb for certain cultures. Some tribal homes were fashioned to look like a womb, with their doors facing eastward for the arrival of the sun. The Lakota tipi itself symbolizes the sun. Creating per­manent structures to calculate time became the logical progression in astronomy. Rocks appear to be the first astronomical calendars, such as the Sahara Stonehenge of the Nabta culture, which anthropologist J. McKim Malville posits to be the oldest astronomical megalithic alignment. Megalithic circles such as the Lakota Medicine Wheels and the British megalithic sites are known to have solar and lunar orientations; in addition, the numerous mounds and “earthworks” of Mesoamerica are also documented with solar and lunar alignments. Many of the archaeoastronomy pueblos or “Great Houses” at Chaco Canyon were constructed with solar, lunar, and planetary alignments; the geo­graphical placement of each Great House is also postulated to have stellar relationships. A unique megalithic calendar in the state of Washington, named “Skystone” by astronomer Jerry Hedlund, utilizes grooves and indentations on the massive boulder to observe the solstices and the winter and summer rising of Sirius.


See also Anthropology; Aztec Calendar; Mayan Calendar; Chaco Canyon; Myths of Creation; Mythology; Navajo; Pueblo; Religions and Time; Sandpainting; Measurements of Time; Totem Poles

Further Readings

Brown, P. (1976). Megaliths, myths & men. New York: Taplinger.

Goodman, R. (1992). Lakota star knowledge: Studies in Lakota stellar theology. Rosebud, SD: Sinite Gleska University.

Hobden, H. J. (1985/1986). Time before clocks. The captive moon—Part 2 as a timekeeper. Retrieved August 30, 2008, from homepage.ntlworld. com/heather.hobden1/timebeforeclocks.htm

Siverts, H. (1995). Campesino time and space in Mesbilja, Chiapas. Folk: Journal of the Danish Ethnographic Society, 36, 91-107.

William, R. A. (1984). Living the sky: The cosmos of the American Indian. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

John Calvin Megalithic Calendars
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