by Staff Writers
Santa Barbara CA (SPX) Aug 18, 2016
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."
"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."
The Venus Table
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.
"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."
To test his new assumption, Aldana turned to another Mayan archaeological site, Copan in Honduras. The former city-state has its own record of Venus, which matched as a historical record the observations in the Dresden Codex. "Now we're just saying, let's take these as historical records rather than numerology," he said. "And when you do that, when you see it as historical record, it changes the interpretation."
Putting the pieces together
The great Polish astronomer stumbled into the heliocentric universe while trying to figure out the predictions for future dates of Easter, a challenging feat that requires good mathematical models. That's what Aldana saw in the Venus Table. "They're using Venus not just to strictly chart when it was going to appear, but they were using it for their ritual cycles," he explained. "They had ritual activities when the whole city would come together and they would do certain events based on the observation of Venus. And that has to have a degree of accuracy, but it doesn't have to have overwhelming accuracy. When you change that perspective of, 'What are you putting these cycles together for?' that's the third component."
Putting those pieces together, Aldana found there was a unique period of time during the occupation of Chichen'Itza when an ancient astronomer in the temple that was used to observe Venus would have seen the progressions of the planet and discovered it was a viable way to correct the calendar and to set their ritual events.
"If you say it's just numerology that this date corresponds to; it's not based on anything you can see. And if you say, 'We're just going to manipulate them [the corrections written] until they give us the most accurate trajectory,' you're not confining that whole thing in any historical time," he said. "If, on the other hand, you say, 'This is based on a historical record,' that's going to nail down the range of possibilities. And if you say that they were correcting it for a certain kind of purpose, then all of a sudden you have a very small window of when this discovery could have occurred."
A Mayan achievement
"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. You know the pope was giving him this charge, but the person who did it? You don't know his or her name."
University of California - Santa Barbara
Space Telescope News and Technology at Skynightly.com
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