Aveni begins with his own birth, and his earliest memories of childhood, a simple way to access some of the major themes for this work: standard divisions and units of time, cultural arrangements of time, and the differences between cultures. His goal is a cross-cultural survey of the "empires of time," and so he asks why did 'they' have timekeeping, who used it, and for what purpose? (11) Aveni divides scholarly discussion and arguments regarding time into two groups: those believing that human knowledge is absolute in nature, and those believing that human knowledge resides in culture. The first group would argue that all human beings perceive time as duration, and that further, duration is understood as cyclic (static) or as linear (progressive). The second group would argue that scholars standing outside a culture cannot know how the culture perceives or understands time until or unless they study the units, images and metaphors that are used to divide and talk about time. Aveni, an astronomer particularly well-versed in Mayan Venus-based time cycles, stands firmly in the second camp, but since his goal is cross-cultural comparison, he draws on arguments from biologists and physiologists in the first group as well as scholars such as Mircea Eliade.
Basic rhythms can be found in animals and vegetables of all species. Evidence of internal cycles in potatoes, oysters, coral, bees, and fruit flies are just some of the studies Aveni cites. Without taking an experiment into space, it is impossible to be certain that no outside or "earthly" influence has reached the subjects of study; however, many biologists incline towards a belief in a basic internal and chemical cycle which regulates most life forms. These cycles are readily affected by exposure to sun and moon, and seem to be linked, but not absolutely linked, to lunar and solar influence.
Early time reckoning can be found in some of our first recorded long poems from Greek, Hebrew and Babylonian cultures. In Hesiod's Works and Days, Works incorporates a farming calendar based on star-watching while the Days section names lucky and unlucky days for carrying out activities: observation and belief, solar and lunar cycles are tied together. His examination of Genesis is less impressive (as an astronomer, he might have looked more carefully at the odd point that light is created in advance of the sun and moon) but he highlights the cycles of ebb and flow in the Garden of Eden to the fall of man, the birth of brothers to the murder of Abel, the organization of human effort and the fall of the tower of Babel. Other founding stories include common elements: successive creations to achieve humankind, the rivalry of generations of gods, the murder of a chief or father, and giant body parts becoming parts of the earth.
Perhaps more difficult to interpret is the physical evidence of time, such as the disputed Dordogne bone tool described by A. Marshack, the Mexican Monterrey petroglyphs, or that hoary collector of bizarre tradition, Stonehenge. At best, we can note that people in past cultures were keenly interested in lunar and solar cycles, and willing to make some effort (as in the case of Stonehenge) to solidify their ability to make predictions. What exact star-trackings, what solar readings -- how sophisticated -- is open for debate, since the creators of these objects are long past recall. With Aveni, I find the notion that ancient peoples did not "need" sophisticated reckonings of time cycles, therefore they did not develop them, incredible. Predicting weather would have to have been of paramount importance, and "need” is a very flexible term.
There is an important difference between "sophisticated " and "accurate," and it is this distinction that carries Aveni through his discussions of Western, tribal, Mayan, Aztec, Inca, and Chinese calendars. The development of the Western calendar is a relatively familiar story, with its Julian and Gregorian adjustments, its Easter debates, its Celtic-pagan name-days of the week, its equal hours counted round in twelves, but the end result -- days as blocks, counting endlessly into the past and future, is definitively imperial in Aveni's schemes, on par with the Chinese and Mayan counting systems, and very unlike flexible tribal calendars. The West has been particularly obsessed with accuracy, assiduously hunting for the smallest unit to be found, settling for now on cesium atoms. For Aveni, key twentieth century changes for Westerners include evolution as a way to understand creation and cosmology, and a much longer time-space continuum, for the earth, and for the universe. (146-157).
In turning to non-Western cultures, Aveni wants to avoid the question "why didn't they develop our accurate and scientific understanding of time." Rather, he wishes to explore how other cultures use time concepts. Tribal cultures like the Nuer, Trobriand, Bororo, or Mursi organize time around agricultural and herding activities, as one might expect, but in each case, when an established unit of time (usually lunar, but sometimes based on other yearly environmental cues) doesn't exactly "match" with the time kept by distant members of the group, or with the needs of the season, then the group simply adds or subtracts until the "external" units come into harmony with the actions at hand. There is sacred time, working time, and no-time, or time that is simply not counted. Perhaps more rigid are the time units used to bind all of society into age groups. Again, each culture has some variation on this practice, but it is an extremely powerful way to define appropriate behavior. Aveni concludes
these people do not believe in history the way we do, though they have a sense of history. As in the events and relationships that comprise tribal life, there is a kind of immediacy to both cyclic ecological time and linear structural time among these tribal societies....[i]nteraction, with either nature or other people is the real reason to keep time, and when things cease to interact or before they ever had interacted, there is no need of reckoning it. (183)Mayan, Inca and Aztec calendars are surveyed next. The Mayan were the longest at the effort of tracking time, and since their hieroglyphs have been relatively recently unlocked, there is a sense that many discoveries still wait at Mayan sites. Primarily, all three cultures believed that they had a part to play in carrying time forward (or around again). To sum up somewhat reductively, the Aztecs were horrifying in their bloody pursuit of that effort, the Incas effective in organizing space around capital radius. The Mayans in particular worked out a complicated linking of a 260 day Venus cycle with a 365 day solar cycle in order, as archaeologists suppose, to express imperial power through accurate prediction and through long lineage lines. Mayan building sites, like the Egyptian pyramids and later Christian cathedrals, were lined up in accordance with beliefs about the heavens. This effort was also undertaken by the Chinese, whom Aveni surveys quite briefly. Fairly early on the Chinese incorporated a long count and a dynastic cycles count, and they tracked Jupiter (creating a zodiac) as enthusiastically as their Mayan counterparts did Venus.
For what it is worth, Aveni's own metaphors for time are music and rhythm.
Having surveyed Western, Eastern and American cultures, Aveni thinks the
real differences lie between less economically specialized cultures, small
territories, wandering tribal societies and economically organized, settled
and large territories. Whether a civilization develops a long-term
methodology for categorizing events depends more upon who is in charge
of time, and what purpose it will serve, than upon any measure of the native
intelligence (whever that is?) of time's user. (334)