The Sophistication of Mayan Astronomy

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Ancient Mayan civilization was one of the most advanced societies of Mesoamerica. Mayans developed a hieroglyphic writing system and created a mathematics with the concept of zero. They built sophisticated complexes of highways, irrigation, and fortifications. Mayan artistic traditions, featuring stone sculptures and impressive architecture, influenced other cultures.

Among their achievements, the Mayans cultivated a strong astronomical tradition. They built observatories, aligned buildings according to astronomical orientations, and planned major occasions around celestial events. A notable example of their astronomical knowledge is the pyramid in the city of Chichén Itzá. There, during the fall and spring equinoxes, shadows create the image of a giant snake descending down the pyramid’s staircase.

Mayan Calendar

Filling Space spoke with Professor Gerardo Aldana, an expert in Mayan astronomical traditions, to learn more about this civilization’s relationship with the cosmos.


How did you come to be interested in Mayan astronomical traditions?

I had always been fascinated by mathematics. As a master’s student in mechanical engineering, that interest advanced to new levels. Taking classes on differential geometry and chaos theory, I encountered mathematical languages that appeared to provide as much space for creativity as for rigor, making it all the more intriguing and attractive. But the early 1990s were complicated by ethical issues of global concern. Environmental degradation was becoming commonplace in the public eye; international politics with an impact on disenfranchised populations were rendered more visible through the development of the internet. As a Chicano (Mexican-American) in California, it was difficult to parse both the potential of science and technology as well as the damage it inflicted differentially on segments of local and global populations. The motivating question for me became one of the relationship between science, technology, and culture. Was “our” approach – the one I was being trained in to pass on to the next generation – really the best one? Were there other viable alternatives? Had there been other approaches in the historical past? Or was everyone in the history of the world just trying to get on the path that we were now on?

These questions led to numerous debates with my friends and colleagues in the robotics lab, but also with friends in other fields of study. Eventually I decided that I wanted to understand the role of science in some other, non-Western culture just to provide a case comparison. I wasn’t romantically seeking a better version in our ancient past; nor was I attempting to demonstrate that other cultures were in fact inferior. I just wanted to know what we could learn by seeing how others understood the relationships between science, technology, and society from their own perspectives.

I was very methodical about my approach to “which” culture and “what” science I should study. The problem that concerned me is that it seemed that even though we could make distinctions between Western science as it coalesced in Europe and the traditions it borrowed from in Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and East Asia, even though we could see differences, in development, they had been in substantive conversation. The Greeks claimed to get geometry from Africa; Medieval Europe got algebra from Islam; astronomical records and methods were brought over from China. How would we parse the difference from the commonality?

On the other hand, in the Western Hemisphere, we had completely independent test cases. The math, science, and technology developed in the Americas had been created independently of Western science and its sources. Moreover, the ancient Maya had a hieroglyphic writing system able to record all the subtleties of spoken language, and it included astronomical records. It seemed to me that here, we could find a perfect example. I should admit, though, that I wasn’t purely objective in making the decision to leave mechanical engineering for the study of ancient Mesoamerica. My parents had roots in Mexico and besides visits to family there throughout my childhood, I developed an amateur interest in ancient Mesoamerica as an undergraduate student. So it was a coming together of different trajectories that were already part of my life. Not a new venture entirely.

So I set off on a new path with what seemed to me a simple enough question, but I was both arrogant (as a scientist) and ignorant of the challenges arising in the study of culture and society. Fortunately, I found the right academic network to support the project, and I eventually wrote a dissertation on the history of Mayan astronomy based on hieroglyphic inscriptions and the archaeological record.

What is the greatest misconception about Mayan astronomical traditions that you have encountered?

I often encounter statements about astronomical perspectives that are taken out of context and applied to all Mesoamericans for all time. The classic example here is that we do have a record by a Spanish priest in the 16th century that Mayans “feared eclipses.” There’s even an account of people coming out of their homes and making noise to shoo the Moon out of the way. But these accounts (and others) came from individuals living in small towns – villages of Maya communities after the violence of conquest disrupted indigenous ways of life. To try to apply the views held by people in these small villages of a few hundred to the scribes or the astronomers or even most of the residents living at Tikal, for example, during the Classic period with its population of over 100,000 is unrealistic.

Mainly, though, I think these cultural interpretations expose our biases… not unlike myths of a “flat earth.” In both cases, they allow modern people to believe that ancient or historical people were somehow simpler or more intellectually primitive than themselves in a sort of celebration of modernity – or at least in a denigration of non-Western otherness. It also assumes a type of uniformity – all “Maya” people were the same – that defies all logic. Such perspectives may help us buy into a neoliberalist agenda, but they work against the appreciation of diversity and the richness of cultural production in the past and around the world.

What is the most interesting aspect of Mayan astronomical traditions in your opinion?

In the two cases I have spent the most time studying, I find most interesting what I believe to be the Mayan appreciation of mathematics on a philosophical level. The astronomical and calendrical innovations of the Venus Table in the Dresden Codex and the 819 Day Count at Palenque both reveal authors who were at the “top of their game” mathematically, but they weren’t doing “math for math’s sake.” They were exploring mathematical realms within complex contexts of religion, politics, and art. That weaving together of different forms of knowledge – kind of an “ancient interdisciplinarity” – is what keeps me jumping from one case study to the next. My next project is on the great Central Mexican metropolis, Teotihuacan, and how its rulers may have transformed the city into a celestial theatre for celebrating ancestors. Not radically different from how Times Square in New York is transformed into a venue for an annual celebration of hundreds of thousands of people participating in a calendric event; I’m investigating the possibility that the Street of the Dead was developed to allow tens of thousands of residents and visitors to celebrate their ancestors timed by the visibility of the Milky Way. Fun stuff!