Jack Fields/Photo Researchers

Aztec calendar from 1200–1500 A.D. Intricately carved, this 13-foot-diameter, 24-ton stone displays one of the calendar systems used by ancient Mesoamerican civilizations. Known as the Calendar Round, this system merged two cycles: a 365-day solar calendar and a 260-day ritual calendar. Every 52 years, the beginning of the two cycles fell on the same day. The Aztecs marked this occasion with a ritual called the New Fire Ceremony, in which old fires were allowed to burn out, and a symbolic new fire was kindled on the breast of a sacrificial victim. Each time the 52-year cycle drew to an end, the Aztecs feared that the earth would be destroyed.

Using a few landmark events whose dates are recorded both in Mesoamerican and European history, scientists have synchronized this calendar system with our own. Events in Mesoamerican history can now be given quite accurate dates on our calendar.