New research on the Dresden Codex, one of only three that escaped the bonfires the Spanish conquistadors made of Mayan libraries, appears to show that what was at first considered astrology is in fact astronomy based on systematic observations. The Mayan astronomers were independently working toward Copernican astronomy.
Bishop Diego de Landa Calderón should go down in history as the Prince of Thieves for his work in the Mayan cites of the Yucatán Peninsula. De Landa recorded his theft of a civilization’s patrimony in his own words, expressing pride in his crime committed in 1562:
We found a large number of books in these characters and, as they contained nothing in which were not to be seen as superstition and lies of the devil, we burned them all, which they regretted to an amazing degree, and which caused them much affliction.
“These characters” referred to Mayan glyphs, a written language Europeans would later claim was a hallmark of civilization that American Indians lacked. The Spanish were very efficient in burning the contents of Mayan libraries, but the glyphs lived on because there were carved inscriptions covering buildings all over Southern Mexico and Central America. Stone does not burn.
Mayans began producing codices about the same time Romans did in the Fifth Century, C.E. The Mayan paper was much more durable than the papyrus used in Europe and North Africa so we would probably have the benefit of Mayan learning today if not for Diego de Landa’s theft, a theft not only from the Mayans but also from the world.
There are only three Mayan codices remaining in the world, and part of a fourth that may or may not be authentic. The codices that escaped the Spanish book burners are known by the cities where they are kept in modern libraries: Paris, Madrid, and Dresden.
Gerardo Aldana is a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, popularly known for his debunking of the meme that the Mayans had predicted the end of the world on December 23, 2012. His latest research, published in the Journal of Astronomy in Culture, is based on study of the Dresden Codex and concludes that Mayan observations of the heavens were much more careful than previously thought.
The Dresden Codex contains the Venus Table, recorded observations that reinforce other Mayan sources claiming that the Maya found great significance in the movement of Venus in the night sky. Some scholars believe that a Mayan building still standing at Uxmal was constructed to observe Venus.
While Venus orbits the sun every 225 days, it appears from the earth to traverse the sky back and forth in a cycle of 584 days. Five of these cycles approximate eight solar years, a ratio that fits the repeated death and resurrection of Kukulcan, the ancient Mayan sky god who by the time of the Spanish invasion would be traveling under the name Quetzalcoatl with associated lore expanded by the Aztecs.
Mayan mathematics adopted the concept of “zero” as a place holder that could multiply base numbers (as we use zero in our decimal system, or base ten) and that led to a fascination with ratios in Mayan lore that expressed beliefs about the physical world—such as the cycle of Venus in the sky—expressed mathematically.
Aldana’s central argument is that prior analyses of the Venus Table have concentrated on producing correlations with European calendar dates—of which the Mayan scribes had no knowledge. He reexamines the numbers with an eye to the Mayan ceremonial cycle and finds that the Mayan astronomers discovered a system for correcting the numbers to fit the ceremonial cycles over hundreds of years.
The corrections amount to a Mayan application of “leap year,” accounting for the fact that the observable astronomical cycles humans use to create calendars do not yield whole numbers. The fractional variations build until it’s necessary to add some time to stay on track with the events being timed on earth by observations in the sky.
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. 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.
As ScienceDaily pointed out, if Aldana’s work holds up, he will have elevated the contents of the Dresden Codex from numerological oddity to achievement of Mayan science. While the Mayans did plenty of numerical analysis, Aldana holds that this codex is based on observations over a long period of time.
Aldana’s work puts the Mayan astronomers close to the Copernican view of the solar system and leads to the question what other knowledge perished in the Spanish bonfires?
Ironically for the idea of a Mayan Copernicus, the Roman Catholic Church was slow to understand the great astronomer and so he died in peace, but in 1633 Galileo Galilei—who had continued along Copernican lines—was prosecuted for heresy for “following the position of Copernicus, which is contrary to the true sense and authority of Holy Scripture.”
Galileo’s persecution for observing the evidence in the sky was over 50 years after de Landa burned the intellectual patrimony of the Mayans for the same sin—observing and recording and then theorizing an explanation.
To this day, some Europeans deny that Indians were capable of discovering and using the scientific method. If that is so, why was it necessary to burn all the evidence?