Maya Astronomers Calculated the Movements of Venus

August 18, 2016

A new analysis of the ancient Mayan text, the Dresden Codex – the oldest book written in the Americas known to historians – suggests an early Maya scientist may have made a major discovery in astronomy more than a thousand years ago.

According to a new study, astronomical data written in part of the text called the Venus Table weren’t just based on numerology as had been thought, but were a pioneering form of scientific record-keeping that had huge significance for Maya society.

“This is the part that I find to be most rewarding, that when we get in here, we’re looking at the work of an individual Mayan, and we could call him or her a scientist, an astronomer,” says anthropologist Gerardo Aldana from University of California, Santa Barbara. “This person, who’s witnessing events at this one city during this very specific period of time, created, through their own creativity, this mathematical innovation.”

Aldana’s reading of the Venus Table – incorporating epigraphy (the study of hieroglyphics), archaeology, and astronomy – suggests that an ancient mathematical correction in the text pertaining to the movements of Venus can likely be traced to the city of Chich’en Itza during the Terminal Classic period of 800 to 1000 AD.

This “mathematical subtlety”, which scholars have long known about but considered a numerological oddity, serves as a correction for Venus’s irregular cycle, which lasts 583.92 days, just like our own Gregorian calendar incorporates leap years.

“So that means if you do anything on a calendar that’s based on days as a basic unit [using Venus but without the correction], there is going to be an error that accrues,” explains Aldana.

According to Aldana’s analysis of the Venus Table, a key verb in the text – k’al – has a different meaning than what researchers originally interpreted it to be. He says it should be read to mean “enclose”, which gives it a new cosmological significance in the text, helping to record a very different scientific message.

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