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In the western, volcano-ringed highlands of Guatemala, Willy Barreno Minera keeps watch over the skies. As an ajq’ij, a daykeeper and spiritual guide, the stars and landscape help him keep track of the 260-day calendar that has ruled the life of his Maya K’iche’ community—an Indigenous group of about 1.6 million people—in Quetzaltenango for generations. Exactly how long people have been using this timekeeping system has posed a mystery. But a new study suggests the ancient calendar used by Maya and Olmec cultures may date back as early as 1100 B.C.E., centuries earlier than previous estimates.

A strength of the new study lies in its large sample size spanning so many years, adds Gabrielle Vail, an archaeologist and epigrapher at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. The results appear to support other written evidence that timekeeping arose during the Formative period, she adds. “It’s very exciting to see. It really supports what a lot of us have thought for a number of years.”