Santa Fe Institute

Mayan astronomy, society, cosmology, & timekeeping

Oct. 15, 2012 10:04 a.m.

As December 2012 approaches -- and with it the supposed end of the fabled Mayan Long Count calendar -- popular references to a Maya predicted doomsday will reach a crescendo. Recently at SFI, a small group gathered for a quieter and far more scholarly approach to understanding the early Maya.

The three-day SFI working group in August brought together experts in Maya archaeoastronomy to pursue questions central to both to astronomy and complex civilizations.

“With the rapid increase in archaeological knowledge about early Maya cities, their architecture and urban forms, new information from hieroglyphic decipherment, and recent advances in understanding ancient Maya iconography, the opportunity for new insights into the role of astronomy in the development of ancient Maya civilization could not be better,” says SFI President Jerry Sabloff, who participated in the meeting. 

“This working group brought people in the field [of Mayan archaeology] together with accomplished archaeoastronomers,” says Maya iconographer and Washington University professor David Freidel, who organized the event. Participants exchanged data and met at SFI to discuss the significance of celestial worship in emerging, pre-classic Mayan cities.

The ancient Maya developed a complex society in the Central American rainforests starting around 800 BC. They flourished there until about AD 900 (although Maya civilization continued in neighboring regions until the 16th century Spanish Conquest). The sun was a major part of their cosmology, and the Mayans erected solar observatories that were central to both religious and political activities.

The SFI working group’s discussion focused on the origins of Maya solar cosmology, and on the architectural structures and early calendars used to tie religious ceremonies to civic gatherings.

With more than half of the world’s population now living in cities, says Freidel, it is more important than ever to understand the religion, politics, and economics of ancient urbanites.

“The Maya built and sustained an urban civilization in a rainforest environment for more than 2,000 years,” he says. “We modern civilizations have managed to almost completely destroy that rainforest in less than 50 years. We have a lot to learn from what the Maya did right.”

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