New Analysis Suggests Existence of an Unknown Ancient Mayan Astronomy Genius

One researcher believes that some of the key calculations of Mayan astronomy may have been deduced by one individual ancient scientist. Matteo Colombo/Getty Images One researcher believes that some of the key calculations of Mayan astronomy may have been deduced by one individual ancient scientist. Matteo Colombo/Getty Images
One researcher believes that some of the key calculations of Mayan astronomy may have been deduced by one individual ancient scientist. Matteo Colombo/Getty Images

Humans can't help doing science. We try to figure out how the world works regardless of where we live or who we hang out with. We see this when we study the Maya, unique among ancient peoples in that they created a major civilization, complete with art, architecture, mathematics, written language and a comprehensive astronomical model, without any contact with other previously existing advanced societies. Of course, all we have of the Maya now is what we salvaged from its ruins, which makes it easy to exoticize the civilization, to lump the people together and call them "The Maya" and forget that their discoveries were made by individuals who went to work every day, just like the rest of us.

And while some scientific developments are the work of teams or groups, sometimes breakthroughs come down to the genius of one single human mind.

A new paper in the Journal of Astronomy in Culture argues the existence of one such Mayan scientist: the man or woman who developed a Mayan model for predicting when Venus could be observed in the night sky — not just this month or next year, but for centuries to come. Gerardo Aldana, the paper's author and a professor of anthropology and Chicana and Chicano studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, suggests this person lived and worked as an astronomer for 25 years during the first half of the 10th century, laboring in the city of Chichén Itza, possibly under the patronage of a bigwig named K'ak' U Pakal K'awiil.

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The advanced astronomical observatory at Chichen Itza has windows aligned with planetary positions.
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Aldana discovered the existence of this person by studying an ancient Mayan text called the Dresden Codex, a document that contains 39 double-sided pages of astronomical data. The codex includes a six-page table for predicting the rising and setting of Venus, whose orbit the Maya had a particular interest in for the purpose of setting rituals. In the 1880's, almost a century before Mayan hieroglyphics were finally deciphered, a mathematician named Ernst Förstemann suggested the six-page table that began on page 24 of the document described the observable period of Venus. In the 1920's, a chemical engineer named John Teeple noticed in the Venus Table that the Maya used a handy little math trick that allowed for the planet's irregular cycle, much like we do with leap year in the Gregorian calendar.

Much like Nicolaus Copernicus, who first realized it was the sun that occupied the center of our solar system while he working at his day job of calculating on which dates Easter would fall, the scientist who authored the Venus Table, Aldana's research suggests, made his or her incredible discoveries while scheduling Venus rituals.  The long-held belief among Mayan specialists is that the Venus Table, despite its obvious correctness, was created with a system of numerology, and not based on observed historical astronomical data.

Aldana acknowledges those beliefs, but discounts them and offers an alternate interpretation. "There's a well established phenomenon within Mayan culture of having numbers that are meaningful in cosmological ways," he says. "For example, four is meaningful because of the four directions, nine is meaningful because it's related to death and the underworld, and 13 is the number for the heavens. You can see in some places the Maya are just playing with these numbers because they have those loaded aspects to them, not because they're trying to capture anything physical."

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An 11th-century Mayan relief depicting the planet Venus.
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But Aldana doesn't believe that's what's happening in the Venus Table. He suggests the author most likely based his or her projections on long-term astronomical data collected over centuries, like the record of Venus found in the Mayan city-state of Copán in Honduras, which matches the observations made in the Dresden Codex.

This assumption, however, causes a few problems for Mayan scholars, who have relied on a fixed "starting date" called the GMT to correlate dates on the Mayan calendar with those on our Gregorian calendar. This correlation constant leans toward the idea that the Maya used numerology rather than observable data to anchor their calendar. Remember the Mayan Apocalypse kerfuffle that was all over the news back in 2012? If Aldana is correct, the date on the modern calendar we assumed lined up with the Mayan end-times could be off by between 50 and 100 years.

"If you want the GMT to be right, you're not going to be happy with this interpretation," says Aldana, although for the most part, he says his ideas have been well received.

"We tend to think of the Maya as being monolithic," says Aldana. "We focus on the things like human sacrifice and the fact that they were brilliant astronomers. It is great to go to the site at Chichén Itza and realize, this is where a person worked when they made a discovery — the kind of discovery that the ancients made in Europe, Egypt or China. We can see science as a thing that people engage in all over the place, including indigenous people in the Americas."