The Maya, in addition to being great engineers, builders, and inventors, were great observers of the heavens. They made discoveries that astonish us until this day. The stars, the sun, the moon, and Venus had great importance in their lives, to the extent of regulating their calendars, agriculture, and society in general.
If you go to any of their archaeological sites, particularly Chichén Itzá, you will notice specialized buildings such as El Caracol, with its spiral staircase inside the tower. With its height and location, the observation of the sky was facilitated. The Maya also built pyramids, for the lush vegetation impeded direct observation of the skies. As well, most of the Maya cities were situated in the south, thereby receiving direct solar light.
Their great contributions include the Venus rotation period, the equinoxes, the symbolic representation of the ceiba tree, as well as astronomical observations of eclipses, and more.
Aside from the sun and the moon, Venus is the brightest and most noticeable object in the sky. The Maya worked on documenting its appearances. They were able to identify that five cycles of 584 days – the time it takes between observations of Venus from earth – is exactly the same as 8 years of 365 days. Such precision!
With respect to the equinoxes, they were familiar with the movements of the sun and they even built the pyramid “El Castillo” at Chichén Itzá; we continue to appreciate the light and shadow phenomenon that is observed during the spring and fall equinoxes.
Being a highly symbolic culture, they considered the Milky Way as a “tree of life” and they represented it with a sacred Ceiba tree. There is also evidence in the Dresden Code of the prediction of eclipses. Maya cosmology was a living, religious philosophy that ruled their lives.
During your visit to Yucatán, remember to look at the night sky and live the experience of contemplating the stars!
Astronomy talks for the whole family are given (in Spanish) on Saturdays at the Arcadio Poveda Ricalde planetarium. On Saturday, March 19, the talk will be about archaeo-astronomical research on the equinox at Dzibilchaltún, given by Felipe Chan Chi, IHAH custodian at that site, from 5-6 pm. Afterward, at 7 pm, conditions permitting, there will be a chance to look at the moon through the telescope, Free entry. Calle 62 x 61, Centro. www.merida.gob.mx/planetario
By Violeta H. Cantarell
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