An Ancient Mayan Copernicus: Hieroglyphic Texts Reveal Mayans Made Major Discovery in Math, Astronomy
For more than 120 years the Venus Table of the Dresden Codex -- an ancient Mayan book containing astronomical data -- has been of great interest to scholars around the world. The accuracy of its observations, especially the calculation of a kind of 'leap year' in the Mayan Calendar, was deemed an impressive curiosity used primarily for astrology.
But UC Santa Barbara's Gerardo Aldana, a professor of anthropology and of Chicana and Chicano studies, believes the Venus Table has been misunderstood and vastly underappreciated. In a new journal article, Aldana makes the case that the Venus Table represents a remarkable innovation in mathematics and astronomy -- and a distinctly Mayan accomplishment. "That's why I'm calling it 'discovering discovery,' " he explained, "because it's not just their discovery, it's all the blinders that we have, that we've constructed and put in place that prevent us from seeing that this was their own actual scientific discovery made by Mayan people at a Mayan city."
Six sheets of the Dresden Codex (pp. 55-59, 74) depicting eclipses, multiplication tables and the flood ( public domain )
Aldana's paper, "Discovering Discovery: Chich'en Itza, the Dresden Codex Venus Table and 10th Century Mayan Astronomical Innovation," in the Journal of Astronomy in Culture , blends the study of Mayan hieroglyphics (epigraphy), archaeology and astronomy to present a new interpretation of the Venus Table, which tracks the observable phases of the second planet from the Sun. Using this multidisciplinary approach, he said, a new reading of the table demonstrates that the mathematical correction of their "Venus calendar" -- a sophisticated innovation -- was likely developed at the city of Chich'en Itza during the Terminal Classic period (AD 800-1000). What's more, the calculations may have been done under the patronage of K'ak' U Pakal K'awiil, one of the city's most prominent historical figures.
"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," Aldana said. "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."
It is believed the Venus calendar was developed at Chich’en Itza, pictured ( public domain )
The Venus Table
Scholars have long known that the Preface to the Venus Table, Page 24 of the Dresden Codex, contained what Aldana called a "mathematical subtlety" in its hieroglyphic text. They even knew what it was for: to serve as a correction for Venus's irregular cycle, which is 583.92 days. "So that means if you do anything on a calendar that's based on days as a basic unit, there is going to be an error that accrues," Aldana explained. It's the same principle used for Leap Years in the Gregorian calendar. Scholars figured out the math for the Venus Table's leap in the 1930s, Aldana said, "but the question is, what does it mean? Did they discover it way back in the 1st century BC? Did they discover it in the 16th? When did they discover it and what did it mean to them? And that's where I come in."
Unraveling the mystery demanded Aldana employ a unique set of skills. The first involved epigraphy, and it led to an important development: In poring over the Table's hieroglyphics, he came to realize that a key verb, k'al, had a different meaning than traditionally interpreted. Used throughout the Table, k'al means "to enclose" and, in Aldana's reading, had a historical and cosmological purpose.
That breakthrough led him to question the assumptions of what the Mayan scribe who authored the text was doing in the Table. Archaeologists and other scholars could see its observations of Venus were accurate, but insisted it was based in numerology. "They [the Maya] knew it was wrong, but the numerology was more important. And that's what scholars have been saying for the last 70 years," Aldana said.
"So what I'm saying is, let's step back and make a different assumption," he continued. "Let's assume that they had historical records and they were keeping historical records of astronomical events and they were consulting them in the future -- exactly what the Greeks did and the Egyptians and everybody else. That's what they did. They kept these over a long period of time and then they found patterns within them. The history of Western astronomy is based entirely on this premise."