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The Mayans May Have Had a Mathematical Genius

Researchers studying the Mayan culture have long been impressed by the Dresden Codex – the 11th century text considered to be the oldest book written in the Americas and possibly based on a book written 400 years before. It has been assumed the book was an astrological and numerology guide but new analysis suggests it was the work of a mathematical genius who developed a sophisticated new way of record-keeping.

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.

The Preface to the Venus table in the Dresden Codex

The Preface to the Venus table in the Dresden Codex

University of California, Santa Barbara, anthropologist Gerardo Aldana writes in the Journal of Astronomy in Culture about a new discovery in the Venus Table, a part of the Dresden Codex that tracks the movement of the planet Venus. He discovered what he describes as a “mathematical subtlety” used by the author of the table to adjust for the odd orbit of Venus, which lasts 583.92 days, not 584 days.

That extra eight-one-hundredth of a day, it adds up when you talk about projections into the future or you look back at historical records. What this astronomer found when he or she was sitting at the top of this building at Chichen Itza and watching Venus, relative to their calendar, they’re seeing the pattern and trying to make it fit with the historical records they have and they come upon this one, really elegant, mathematical equation that allows them to tie it all together.

Observatory in Chichen Itza where a Mayan math genius may have developed his or her innovation to the calendar

Observatory in Chichen Itza where a Mayan math genius may have developed his or her innovation to the calendar

Aldana used a different interpretation of the Mayan word “k’al” – which he says means “enclose” – to show that the leap day the astronomer created for Venus was an innovation, not an accident, that turned the Mayan calendar into an important tool for scheduling rituals and planning events in a culture that placed a great deal of importance on the movements of Venus.

This puts the Mayans on par with the other great astronomers and mathematicians of the world, says Aldana.

If you talk about the earliest Greek astronomers that we know of, they were doing the same kind of things. [The Mayans’ were] much more festival, ritual, events that involve large communities or large groups of society, and in this case they wanted it to be timed by the visibility of Venus. This is why I make the comparison to Copernicus, because Copernicus was worried about how good their astronomical models were so that they could do things like set the timing of Easter.

This is more than a mathematical discovery, says Aldana. It’s a new way of looking at the history of the Mayans.

We talk about ‘the Maya’ as though that’s a meaningful term — how can you capture all these millions of people with one phrase? Popular culture has misrepresented the Mayan [people] in so many ways that we have to almost excavate or peel away that stuff to get at their experiences and what they tried to do and what they recorded.

Attempting to describe an entire culture or group of people with just a few words still gets us in trouble, doesn’t it?

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