Deciphering the depth and accuracy of ancient Mayan astronomy
Ancient Mayans cared so much about astronomy that western researchers were able to recognize their observations of the heavens before any other writing could be translated. A 39 page text, known as the Dresden Codex, was taken to the Royal Library in Dresden, Germany in the 1730s, and while scholars had yet to translate any Mayan hieroglyphics, the numerals on one page accurate enough to be recognizable as measuring the transit of Venus in the sky, even without other context. Further examinations in the 1920s found the observations seemed to include adjustments in the calendar to better sync with Venus’ irregular movement, possibly pointing to the use of extrapolated dates that proved incorrect. Now that the full Dresden Codex has been translated, we know that the observations of Venus were very accurate, and that the Mayans knew it too.
Correcting the cultural calendar
Mayan hieroglyphics were finally deciphered in 1952, allowing modern researchers to fill in the blanks on this large manuscript. Chak Ek’, or Venus, is indeed the focus of the document, but the adjustments were to the Mayan cultural calendar, not to their expectations of our neighboring planet. Many rituals and celebrations were tied to Venus’ position in the sky, and so close records were kept to ensure they were conducted at the correct time of year. With up to 25 years of observations referenced in the Codex, it looks like the author was concerned with how to keep these events’ schedule as accurate as possible, accounting for even small deviations that might disrupt timing more significantly hundreds of years into the future, or maybe the past.
This isn’t the only piece of Mayan writing that was recording the stars, or specifically Venus. Another document that predates the Dresden Codex by 200 years was also measuring the Evening Stars’ activity, showing how the planet held considerable weight in Mayan culture for some time.
While the observations of Venus showed a degree of scientific rigor, some of the strongest motivations these astronomical studies appear to be more theological in nature. Many of the events that needed to be properly timed with Venus’ position in the sky concerned the feathered serpent god, Kukulkan. Kukulkan became increasingly important in Mayan religion after 1000 CE, and seems to have been a bit of an analogue to the deity Quetzalcoatl, who was worshiped by the contemporary Aztecs. Both dieties are closely associated with Venus’s movement, which helped motivate astronomers throughout Central America.
Source: The Maya Were Tracking the Planets Long Before Copernicus by Tia Ghose, Live Science