AMERINDIA 40: 69-104, 2018
Carmen GONZÁLEZ & Jean-Michel HOPPAN
Chercheuse indépendante Mondes Andins & SeDyL (CNRS-UMR 8202)
bstract: The Inca/Quechua and Maya cultures had in common the availability of numerals
which allowed the development of the largest accounts produced in pre-Columbian America.
However, in addition to the fact that the numeral system of the former was decimal and that of
the second was vigesimal (and was for that eclipsed by the Hispanic decimal system in the
modern era), these cultures differ in that the use of large numbers was for the first culture
mainly put at the service of the state administration, while for the second, it was exclusively
reserved to the calendar that governed public life in the city.
The comparative study of the terms related to the reckoning of time in the Quechua and Maya
languages, proposed in this paper, highlights two conceptions of time that seem diametrically
opposed: the first –Inca/Quechua culture– clearly did not pay attention in measuring time
spans beyond the year, while the second -maya culture- pushed the count of time up to
generate an absolute calendar which, by numbering days from an original date, was a
historical cultural cement for more than a millennium and a half. It foreshadowed, thereby,
twenty centuries in advance, the adoption of the Julian Days system by the international
Our study puts in parallel, in a first part the terms of the numeration in the two systems, in a
second part the lexicon of the units of time and, in the third part the links uniting numeration
and calendar. The divergence finally observed shows, in particular, that the development of a
historical consciousness broadened to a time far exceeding the duration of one or a few
generations is, directly, related to the existence of a writing in the strict sense of the term,
namely of a system of representation of the language by means of standardized graphic signs.