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For the Maya, solar eclipses were a sign of heavenly clashes − and their astronomers kept sophisticated records to predict them

Kimberly H. Breuer, University of Texas at Arlington, The Conversation on

Published in News & Features

We live in a light-polluted world, where streetlamps, electronic ads and even backyard lighting block out all but the brightest celestial objects in the night sky. But travel to an officially protected “Dark Sky” area, gaze skyward and be amazed.

This is the view of the heavens people had for millennia. Pre-modern societies watched the sky and created cosmographies, maps of the skies that provided information for calendars and agricultural cycles. They also created cosmologies, which, in the original use of the word, were religious beliefs to explain the universe. The gods and the heavens were inseparable.

The skies are orderly and cyclical in nature, so watch and record long enough and you will determine their rhythms. Many societies were able to accurately predict lunar eclipses, and some could also predict solar eclipses – like the one that will occur over North America on April 8, 2024.

The path of totality, where the Moon will entirely block the Sun, will cross into Mexico on the Pacific coast before entering the United States in Texas, where I teach the history of technology and science, and will be seen as a partial eclipse across the lands of the ancient Maya. This follows the October 2023 annular eclipse, when it was possible to observe the “ring of fire” around the Sun from many ancient Maya ruins and parts of Texas.

A millennia ago, two such solar eclipses over the same area within six months would have seen Maya astronomers, priests and rulers leap into a frenzy of activity. I have seen a similar frenzy – albeit for different reasons – here in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, where we will be in the path of totality. During this period between the two eclipses, I have felt privileged to share my interest in the history of astronomy with students and the community.

The ancient Maya were arguably one of the greatest sky-watching societies. Accomplished mathematicians, they recorded systematic observations on the motion of the Sun, planets and stars.

 

From these observations, they created a complex calendar system to regulate their world – one of the most accurate of pre-modern times.

Astronomers closely observed the Sun and aligned monumental structures, such as pyramids, to track solstices and equinoxes. They also utilized these structures, as well as caves and wells, to mark the zenith days – the two times a year in the tropics where the Sun is directly overhead and vertical objects cast no shadow.

Maya scribes kept accounts of the astronomical observations in codices, hieroglyphic folding books made from fig bark paper. The Dresden Codex, one of the four remaining ancient Maya texts, dates to the 11th century. Its pages contain a wealth of astronomical knowledge and religious interpretations and provide evidence that the Maya could predict solar eclipses.

From the codex’s astronomical tables, researchers know that the Maya tracked the lunar nodes, the two points where the orbit of the Moon intersects with the ecliptic – the plane of the Earth’s orbit around the Sun, which from our point of view is the path of the Sun through our sky. They also created tables divided into the 177-day solar eclipse seasons, marking days where eclipses were possible.

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