Dating Pre-1492 Events in the Americas
December 1, 2016 1:01 PM   Subscribe

Are there any events in the Americas before 1492 that we are able to date exactly with a reasonable confidence? What's the oldest such event? We know that Julius Caesar was assassinated on exactly March 15th 44 BCE. Do we know any such exact dates in the western hemisphere?

While running to work, I saw an ad for a reenactment of the Boston Tea Party. For a fraction of a second I thought it said it was the 1000th anniversary. Not only is that so very wrong, but I wonder if we won't be able to celebrated the thousandth anniversary of anything on this content for another five hundred years. I know the Mayans had calendars, and I assume other native cultures did as well -- have they been accurately mapped to the Gregorian?
posted by Plutor to Grab Bag (6 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
Per wikipedia:

The Maya and Western calendars are correlated by using a Julian day number (JDN) of the starting date of the current creation — 13.0.0.0.0, 4 Ajaw, 8 Kumk'u.[n 4] This is referred to as a correlation constant. The generally accepted correlation constant is the Modified Thompson 2, "Goodman–Martinez–Thompson", or GMT correlation of 584,283 days.
. . .
In Breaking the Maya Code, Michael D. Coe writes: "In spite of oceans of ink that have been spilled on the subject, there now is not the slightest chance that these three scholars (conflated to GMT when talking about the correlation) were not right...".[21] The evidence for the GMT correlation is historical, astronomical, and archaeological:


MesoAmerican historical records are extremely detailed, especially related to royal deaths and battles and the usual ancient interests. Just randomly googling, this book seems to have a pretty detailed description of the Maya royal line, including specific dates.
posted by Think_Long at 1:17 PM on December 1, 2016 [4 favorites]


You're probably looking more for events that took place in parts of the Americas with a complex culture, systems of writing, and written calendars. For example, scholars know a great deal about chronologies of events in the Mayan empire, because that culture kept written calendrical records.

Also, one problem with your question is that, for the "Old World", we can precisely date events because we have several large complex civilizations existing at the same time, often in communication with each other. The Ancient Egyptians kept impeccably detailed dated annals, which means that any Old World event that would have been chronicled by them -- or even obliquely noted -- can be re-confirmed by having the date from multiple sources. For the Americas, we just don't have that many detailed written records from contemporaneous societies which were in communication with each other. Now, this could be because those records have not yet been found, or because they were destroyed by colonial conquerors who wanted to stamp out "heathen" literary materials. But we just don't have the kinds of detailed and backed up sources for the New World that we have for the Old.
posted by Sara C. at 1:24 PM on December 1, 2016


This isn't exactly responsive to your request since it's well after 1492, but may be interesting to you anyway since it concerns the Oregon coast, which Columbus obviously never reached, let alone at that time. It's before other meaningful Spanish exploration of the area as well.

Anyway: the great Cascadia Earthquake, thought to have occurred on January 26, 1700. This is based on Japanese records, because the earthquake was strong enough to cause a tsunami all the way across the Pacific. This is consistent with local (US) geological records, which show a massive die-off of trees shortly after the summer of 1699 due to inundation with salt water - but this is not precise down to the day like the Japanese record.
posted by Joey Buttafoucault at 1:25 PM on December 1, 2016 [9 favorites]


I'd like to push back in the idea that we know Caesar was killed on March 15th.

He was killed on a date the Romans called the 15th of March. It's only because we use those same words that it sounds precise. But they've changed the calendar plenty. saturnalia was a pretty amorphous holiday that would be extended when they realized their year had become out of sync with the actual time it takes to get around the sun. The precision isn't real. (It's just usually unimportant for you to know how many days ago Caesar was killed)
posted by politikitty at 1:26 PM on December 1, 2016 [14 favorites]


MesoAmerican historical records are extremely detailed, especially related to royal deaths and battles and the usual ancient interests.

The fantastic documentary Breaking the Maya Code (which may still be streaming via Netflix) covers some very specific dates.

Anyway: the great Cascadia Earthquake, thought to have occurred on January 26, 1700. This is based on Japanese records, because the earthquake was strong enough to cause a tsunami all the way across the Pacific.

In a similar context, astronomical chronology through written histories of eclipses, comets, and so on have been useful in this way.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 1:39 PM on December 1, 2016 [4 favorites]


Regarding Maya dates, some scholars think that the culture was prone to recording dates incorrectly for purposes of propaganda. So, we may not have as accurate dating as modern people expect.
posted by mortaddams at 4:34 AM on December 2, 2016


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