A Mayan Astronomer Calculated the Movements of Venus Over 1,000 Years Ago

Wednesday, 17 August 2016 - 1:44PM
Astronomy
Weird Science
Wednesday, 17 August 2016 - 1:44PM
A Mayan Astronomer Calculated the Movements of Venus Over 1,000 Years Ago
In an ancient Mayan text called the Dresden Codex, stargazers created a "Venus chart," which maps a type of "leap year" in the Mayan calendar. Now, researchers believe that it is actually a scientific document as well as a calendar, charting Venus' movements with an astronomical precision that was unheard of when the Mayan lived over a millennium ago.

Mayan Chart of Venus

[Credit: University of California, Santa Barbara]



The Dresden Codex (which already sounds like it's straight out of a Dan Brown novel) is an ancient Mayan book of astronomical data, and includes a few pages called the "Venus Chart," which has been of great interest to scientists for over a century. It seemed to track the idiosyncratic Venusian year—583.92 days—and account for the error in the calendar that accrued from the partial day, similar to our leap year. According to University of California, Santa Barbara researcher Gerardo Aldana, the calendar has a "mathematical subtlety" to it that suggests a scientific method, and genuine astronomical innovation.

Opening quote
"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 in a statement. "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."
Closing quote

Researchers could see that the calendar was accurate to Venus' actual orbit, but assumed that Mayans didn't use astronomical observations to create this chart, but rather numerology. Aldana claims that this assumption is erroneous, and that the chart is most likely observation-based, and similar to the scientific method we use today. They were historical records, not numerological records.

Opening quote
"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."
Closing quote

He calls the mystery astronomer, who would have been observing the appearance of Venus from a temple, the Mayan Copernicus. Copernicus accidentally discovered that the universe was heliocentric while watching the skies for ways to predict the future dates of Easter, which led Aldana to wonder whether this astronomer was observing the movements of Venus for Mayan rituals. And, in fact, the Mayans did have events in which the entire city would come together to observe the arrival of Venus, which would require the prediction of such an event with some measure of accuracy.

As a result, the person recording Venus' appearances for the Venus chart is an ancient astronomer very much like Copernicus, although we may never know his or her name:

Opening quote
"I don't have a name for this person, but I have a name for the person who is probably one of the authority figures at the time," Aldana said. "It's the kind of thing where you know who the pope was, but you don't know Copernicus's name.
Closing quote
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