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The Maya astronomers

Current views between awe und injustice -

and yet unsolved questions



Who were the people in Mesoamerica who prepared the soil for the Mayan culture which reached the highest stage in  the New World? 
We don't know now and probably we never will. We don't know the names of astronomers, mathematicians, sculpturers or other scientists which are comparable to the achievements of the famous greek minds.
The invention of script, a high level of knowledge in mathematics -  the mathematical number 'Zero'  was known to the Mayans 1000 - 1500 years earlier than to the Europeans - the setting up  and use of exact calender-systems, architecture with mighty pyramids,  their artistical performances and especially their knowledge in astronomy were proof of the high intelligence and great creativity of these people who also were named the 'Greeks of the New World'.
From their heritage, however, we can draw some conclusions to answer at least part of the questions, with the main focus of this article being the astronomic aspects of Mayan culture.



If we take a closer look at Mayan literature which deals with astronomical records and problems, obviously the statements can often be divided into 2 categories:

Category 1: here we have the multitude of publications trying to analyse correctly and to interprete Mayan records based on scientifically proven knowledge. If the results are differing in several questions, this is based on  the difficult subject and on the other hand on different pole positions (see correlation problem).

Category 2: here authors want to lift the capacities and performances of the Mayan astronomers to an elevated and exaggerated level. Only 2 examples taken from the multitude of such arguments shall be demonstrated which have been requoted and copied for decades:

  • The Maya calender is said to be more exact than the Gregorian calender because it indicates the year with 365,2420 days, while our Gregorian calender gives 365,2425 days. The tropical year is calculated as 365,2422 days, i.e. the difference between tropical year and Maya calender is smaller than between tropical year and Gregorian calender.
  • The Mayan astronomers are also said to have knowledge about the Venus cycle, a statement which arises only from a wishful thinking. Statements are made like 'the Mayans knew the synodic cycle with a precision of 1 hour/year. Another example talks about the precision of the Venus cycle of 1 day per 6000 years.

Whenever such statements are made, nobody cares to review the sources: who made the original assumption and where in the literature it is to be found.


Awe and injustice

The Mayan astronomers are not dependent on such exaggerations, for their heritage is magnificent enough. They deserve our highest respect and admiration, even if this would be based only on the records deciphered till now.

Then why: injustice?
On the one hand we have the exaggerations and on the other hand the assumptions which are stated during more than 7 decades. I want to present here a typical example of this way of injustice for open discussion:

The date  1 Ahau 18 Kayab, page 24 of the Dresden Codex, is known as the base date of the Venus table, but is also used as one of the 'pillars' for proving the correctness of the correlation constant GMT.  1 Ahau 18 Kayab starts the calculation of the cycles of the Venus table, which was stated as

    236 days for the visibility in the morning,

    90   days for the invisibility during the superior conjunction

    250 days for the visibility in the evening

    8      days for the invisibility during the inferior conjunction

    584 days for the synodic cycle.

That is, the day of the first appearance of Venus in the morning sky is linked with 
1 Ahau 18 Kayab, astronomically seen this is the heliacal rising of Venus. Using the correlation constant GMT 584283 (or 584285, as represented by Lounsbury,) the following date in the Julian calender  results: 4 February 623.

On this date Venus, however, was still in the evening sky with about 24° distance from the sun. The heliacal rising  took place in 21 February 623, as also stated by Thompson, Lounsbury and others.

These facts are known, but: what is wrong now?

To assume that the Mayan astronomers made such a grave mistake of 17 days, is an injustice.

Lounsbury proposed the following solution in 1982:
6 Calendar Rounds should be added to  1 Ahau 18 Kayab to reacht the long count date  1 Ahau 18 Kayab, which corresponds to 20 November 934.
This is a heliacal rising of Venus (or better said, one day later) - but permit me to ask the question:
why did the Mayans explicitly record the long count (1 Ahau 18 Kayab)?

Where's the mistake?

  • The Mayan date is correct, as the Ring Number 6.2.0, page 24, confirms it:  4 Ahau 8 Cumku, - 6.2.0 =  1 Ahau 18 Kayab
  • either the correlation constant 584283 is not correct
  • or  1 Ahau 18 Kayab is no heliacal rising of Venus
  • or both statements are false.

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Copyright 2005 Anton Stock

Last updated December 29, 2005