The Ancient Mayas may have mapped the planets in our Solar System over 700 years before Copernicus.

What do we know about Mayan astronomy?

The astronomical knowledge of the Mayans was very centered on calendars.

The earliest known achievements of Mayan astronomy date back to the 3400s BC.

How do we know? Because in 1922, a lost city was discovered in northern Guatemala.

It is about what was once one of the largest cities of the Mayans: Tikal.

Mayas Tikal
Tikal National Park. Credit: web “”

In it, 40 sculpted stone stelae were found, which are now preserved, for the pride of their descendants, in the Tikal National Park.

Stela 10 shows, for example, an image of the zodiac based on the ecliptic, which is the passage of the Sun through the fixed constellations.

Maya estela 10
Mayan Stela Tikal. Credit: web “”.

Some observations of the sky made by the Mayans are well known, such as the lunar eclipse of February 15, 3379 BC.

They had their own solar calendar and knew the periodicity of eclipses. They inscribed on stone monuments formulas to predict solar eclipses and the movements of Venus.

Mayan astronomical knowledge belonged to the priestly class, which enjoyed enormous social prestige and the entire life of the people was governed by its norms and predictions.

Pictorial reconstruction of a Mayan city. Credit: web “”.

In 1986, also in Guatemala, the ancient city of Xultan was discovered near Tikal. To the right is an image of Xultan, as it is reconstructed today.

In addition to a large number of ceramic objects, 24 stelae with hieroglyphic inscriptions were found in limestone. This writing has been difficult to decipher, but great strides have been made in it.

Many of these griffins contain astronomical observations made by the sages of ancient times.

Grolier Codex

In 1985, a precious Mayan document was found in Mexico. It is the so-called “Grolier Codex” which is currently kept in one of the country’s museums and which also contains several of the secret astronomical knowledge of the Mayans.

Codice grolier
Page 7 of the Mayan Codex of Mexico. Credit: Wikipedia

The Mayans used a kind of paper, more sophisticated than the papyrus of the Egyptians.

Unfortunately, the idiocy of some uncontrolled fanatics, who arrived from Europe, irretrievably destroyed the vast majority of the codices by throwing them into the flames.

Only three codices and a part of a fourth survive to our times.

These are: the Dresden Codex, the Madrid Codex, the Paris Codex, and a fragment of Grolier’s.

Similar in shape and structure, each one is written on a single folded sheet almost 7 meters long and 20 to 22 centimeters high, in sheets that are about 11 centimeters wide.

The Dresden Grolier Codex

The best known and most elaborate of these four codices is the Dresden one, which is essentially a treatise on astronomy.

Explain details of the Mayan calendar and the Mayan number system.

It is believed that it was written by the Mayans just before the Spanish conquest.

It is kept in the Dresden State Library in Germany.

The codex is written on a long sheet of paper that is folded so that 39 pages are created, with taps on both sides.

The codex includes a calendar of Venus, showing that the Maya had a more complex calendar associated with ceremonial ideas.

The four columns on each of these pages represent Venus in her position as the upper conjunction, the morning star, the lower conjunction, and the evening star.

At the bottom of each page the number of days in each period is shown in Mayan numbers.

In the Dresden Codex and in numerous stelae are the calculations of the cycles of the Moon, the Sun, Venus and the periodicity tables of the eclipses.

The mayan calendar

The Mayan calendars are part of the greatest cultural achievements of humanity. Their conception of the movement of the celestial bodies was based on the cyclical conception of history, and astronomy was the tool they used to know the influence of the stars on the world.

One of them, the most representative, is the use of the Long Count calendar, by which the Mayans were able to make calculations for millions of years to come.

All cities of the classical period are oriented with respect to the movement of the celestial vault.

In the Chichén Itzá castle, the four stairs of the building add up to 365 steps, every day of the year.

It is amazing to think that the wise Mayan priests obtained this truly spectacular knowledge, no less than six millennia ago, without telescopes, without computers and without even paper to write on.

Maya calendar
Maya calendar. Credit: web “”

Undoubtedly the beginnings of Mayan astronomy dates back much earlier, but the absence of information supports prevented the development of this intellectual feat from being recorded.

Some of the astronomical knowledge that the Mayan priests had was that the Milky Way was a central part of their Cosmology.

The zodiac and its constellations is a band wide enough to contain the Sun and that surrounds the celestial sphere following the ecliptic.

Periodicity of lunar and solar eclipses. They recorded the prediction of a lunar eclipse of February 15, 3379 BC. C.

They knew with great accuracy the synodic revolutions of the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.

Synodic period is the time it takes for a star to reappear at the same point in the sky with respect to the Sun, when observed from Earth.

This period takes into account that the Earth, the place from which the object is observed, also orbits around the Sun.

His calendar began on a zero date which, in our reckoning of years, is June 8, 8498 BC. C.

They had a year of 365 days, divided into 18 months of 20 days and a month of 5 days.