Mayan Astronomy: The Scientific Achievements Of An Ancient Civilization

mayan astronomyThe Mayans were an ancient Mesoamerican civilization that flourished in a number of Central American countries such as Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and also extended into Southern Mexico in North America. They were one of the most important civilizations of the pre-Columbian period and had developed a highly evolved language that had an evolved phonetic written form. Their numerical symbols were also much evolved and even if they appear to be pictorial to the uninitiated, they were easy to understand and work with once you get the hang of the methodology. The decipherment of the numerical system used by the Mayans were later cracked, thanks to the efforts of one Constantine Rafinesque. Number systems in Roman e.g., were much more complicated and did not give off any meaning apparently to someone who is not exposed to the symbols, as there is no pictorial resemblance to the system of counting. In fact the Mayans knew about the usage of zero which was not in the west up until12th century CE.

The Dresden Codex

Mayan literary writings in the form of bark-paper books were all but destroyed during the Spanish conquests of the central Americas. Conquistadors such as Hernan Cortez not only destroyed much of the physical aspects of the civilizations in a meticulous fashion, but also the priceless knowledge that the Mayans gathered over thousands of years and recorded in their books. Diego de Landa, was another such figure who went about his job of converting the indigenous population into Christianity and destroying the native beliefs and culture. He is widely considered to be the single reason why there are so few of original Mayan texts in the world.

However four of the original books with details about many aspects of Mayan astronomy and other pursuits survived. One of those books was sent to the Spanish court as a gift by Cortez. This is the book that somehow popped up later in Dresden. Thus the name Dresden Codex. Ironically, Landa himself played an important role in the understanding of the Mayan culture and their religion as well. His book Relación De Las Cosas De Yucatán is considered by scholars today as the foremost expert commentary on ancient Mayan culture and their religion.

Mayan Astronomy

The Mayans were not only a great agrarian culture but they excelled in architecture (building some 60 or more cities which flourished during the ancient ages), language, mathematics and also astronomy. The Mayans believed that the Earth is at the center of all celestial bodies and that the Sun, the Moon and the stars moved around it. Their actions thus had a bearing on the life and times of the people and that if their movements could be predicted, so can be what the future holds. The Mayans were avid sky-watchers and dependent on the celestial bodies when it came to taking decision about different aspects of their lives, even war. The position of the Sun, the Moon and Venus were critical to the observance of festivities and special occasions.

By far the most important planet for the Mayans was Venus. They had devised accurate methods to track its movements and knew that one year in Venus is equal to 584 days. This is startling to comprehend as it is dead on accurate (the actual modern calculation is 583.92 days). Please note that this method of calculation is based on earth and not the sun.

Mayans were located on the Yucatán Peninsula which is closer to the Equator. This made it easier for them to accurately determine and predict the equinoxes. There is an interesting building at the site of the Chichen Itza ruins. It is known as El Caracol or the Snail because of a spiralling staircase inside the building. The shape of the building is nothing like one would see in any other Pre-Colombian Mayan city ruins. It was round and it is believed that the structure served the purpose of a modern-day observatory.

It is surprising to even imagine how the Mayans, who presumably did not even have any wheeled carts or animals that can pull one, managed to bring the stones to the site and then placed them into position so precisely. The absence of any wheeled carts is also a baffling anomaly of the advanced Mayan civilization as there are plenty of artefacts (toys etc.) that proves that they knew the concepts of a wheel.

Unlike modern observatories, however, the Mayans created holes on the walls of the building. Those holes would allow the ancient Mayans a way to observe a particular section of the night sky. Usually the path of Venus across the night sky was what they were observing. By their astute observations they knew the exact movements of Venus, the constellations and the Moon.

A great demonstration of the Mayan’s level of understanding of astronomy and their meticulous use of that knowledge in architecture is the El Castillo or the temple of Kukulkan where a strange phenomenon happens during spring and autumn equinoxes. During the late afternoons the shadows cast by the sun on the Northwest Balustrade gives the impression of a snake crawling down the temple. Interestingly, the four sides have staircases that have exactly 91 steps each. That totals to 364. Add one more step which in the form of the top temple platform and you have 365. The same number of days in a year as the Gregorian calendar!

Mayan Believes About the Milky Way and the Constellations

The Mayans had great reverence for the cosmos and the Milky Way. Traditionally it was believed in the Mayan culture that the Milky Way was the “Tree of Life”. The individual stars in that formed the unique life yielding forces. Just as the constellations of the present time, the Mayans had their own constellations which were slightly different than the current ones. They had constellations such as the Turtle, the Jaguar and a Bat. They even had a constellation that appeared like a sea monster! However, the importance of the stars was limited only to a study of the seasons and the predictions when they would come and go. This knowledge was beneficial in their agrarian society.

The Mayan Calendar

The Mayans were experts in astronomy and lived in the same period in history as the Classical Age in Greece (4th and 5th century BCE). The Mayan calendar formed an important part of the Mayan civilization and the royalty of the day used it as a source of great power. The Mayans used precise measurement techniques to date every architectural work that they undertook. They believed that life that they knew started at some mythical moment around 4000 years ago (which was later calculated as per the Gregorian calendar to be on the date August 13, 3114 BCE) and thus they could accurately time the number of days that have elapsed since then.

The Mayan calendar was a combination of cycles that measured time. The first cycle consisted of a total of 260 days. 13 numbers were used which came in a periodic order repeatedly. They together with 20 days names, which also repeated, created a system of measuring time. Another system had a total of 365 days, much like the Gregorian calendar of the western World. This system had a total of 19 Months, 18 of which had 20 days each and the last one had only 5 days. Together the 260 days and the 365 day cycles formed a much larger and more complex calendar system known as the Calendar Round. In this system one particular date would recycle only once in every 52 years making it one interval. This system was later found out to be too complicated in order to actually relate between two historical events. Thus to achieve this the Long Count Calendar was devised in 236 BCE.

Till recently the Mayan calendar generated a lot of interest among cult and doomsday followers. The ancient Mayan calendar which predicted celestial movements with extremely high accuracy mysteriously did not contain anything after December 21st 2012 which some scholars believed pointed at the end of days. However, that date has come and gone much to the disappointment of doomsday fanatics.

A Word About the Decipherment of the Mayan Code

The Mayan civilization and their literary system would be have been impossible to decipher if it had not been for the painstakingly detailed work by explorer and archaeologist Alfred Maudslay. Maudslay took full advantage of the modern invention of photography and was the first to make a detailed and accurate record of the writing style of the ancient Mayans.

Before him the drawn Mayan glyphs were sometimes inaccurately recorded. E.g., French artist Jean-Frédéric Waldeck who made an attempt to do so often added symbols which were not even Mayan! In some of the pictures that he copied and reproduced he used elephant signs which was very similar to Asian depictions and clearly incorrect. His depictions of the Mayan pyramids was also close to the pyramids of ancient Egypt. Percival Maudslay was the first who’s extensive and painstaking work to photograph these icons of a lost civilization ensured that the glyphs were properly documented and then brought to scholars who had no other way to gain access to them. This ultimately led to the deciphering of these glyphs.

However, it was not until David Stuart, the brilliant young Mayanist and the youngest winner of the MacArthur Fellowship, deciphered much of the phonetic of the Glyphs, which stalwarts like J. Eric Thompson had strongly suggested could not be read.