A unit of length, and a unit of land area among the Maya, pre-Columbian to present. One meaning of “kaan” in Mayan is “twine”, or “cord”. Thus it belongs to that class of units, such as “cord” and “chain” in English, which have taken their names from the instrument used to measure them.
David Bolles¹ gives a modern definition: “a standard milpa measurement of 20 lineal meters and also 20 meters square”, that is, 400 square meters. This repeats a definition in Barrera²:
K'aan “Mecate.” Medida de superficie y también lineal, que en la actualidad se acepta como equivalente a cuatrocientos metros cuadrados en el primer caso y veinte metros lineales en el segundo.
kaan: Mecate. Measure of area and also length, which in actuality is taken as equivalent to 400 square meters in the first case and 20 meters in the second.
Barrera page 31. The quotation marks around “mecate” indicate that this part of the definition was taken verbatim from A. Pérez-Toro, La Milpa. Mérida, Yucatán: Publicaciones del Gobierno de Yucatán, 1942.
Even if this is the current usage, on the face of it these cannot have been the magnitudes in premetric times.
Calderon³ says the kaan as a unit of length = 20 betanes, and estimates it at 21.84 meters, which roughly agrees with the definitions above. Lending credence to this order of magnitude is that the mecate in many neighboring countries is a unit of length of about 20 meters.
The betan was half of a zap or zapiche so kaan as unit of length is 10 zap.
Brinton⁴ in contrast describes the kaan as a unit of land area (the zap = 2 betanes):
On this [the zap or zapal] as a unit, the customary land measure was based. It was the kaan, one shorter, hun kaan tah ox zapalche, a kaan of three zap, and one longer, hun kaan tah can zapalche, a kaan of four zap. The former is stated to be thirty-six fathoms [i.e., zap] square, the latter forty-eight fathoms square.
Something is very wrong here. An area 36 fathoms on a side would be 46,656 square feet, which is much too large. An area of 36 square fathoms would be 1296 square feet. Early writers say the kaan is equivalent to a mecate, which is around 5000 square feet. Moreover, if we accept that 20 kaan = 1 uinic, the uinic would be 25,290 square feet, about 3/5ths of an acre. The uinic is supposed to be enough land to support a family, growing maize.
1. David Bolles.
Combined Dictionary-Concordance of the Yucatecan Mayan Language.
Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies, Inc.
Accessed 11 May 2007.
2. Alfredo Barrera Marin, Alfredo Barrera Vásquez and Rosa
Maria López Franco.
Nomenclatura etnobotánica maya: una interpretación taxonómica.
Mexico: Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia, SEP, Centro Regional de Sureste, 1976.
3. Hector M. Calderon.
La Ciencia Matematica de los Mayas.
Mexico, D.F.: Editorial Orion, 1966.
4. Daniel G. Brinton.
The Lineal Measures of the Semi-Civilized Nations of Mexico and Central America.
Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 18, no. 118 pages 194- 197 (March 1885).
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Last revised: 18 February 2006.