Mesoamerica is a name given by archaeologists to the area that is now southern Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, most of El Salvador, and parts of Honduras (Figure 12.1) and inhabited by people who shared many cultural traits in pre-Columbian times. Table 12.1 indicates the approximate chronology for the cultures of Mesoamerica. Much of the area was ruled by the Aztecs in the time immediately before the Spaniards arrived in 1519. The people spoke over 70 different languages at that time. The economic base was sophisticated farming, and there was a well-developed bronze technology. A few cities were bigger than those of ancient Egypt or the Near East. Elaborate hierarchies of political, religious, and economic personnel directed the societies. Astrology here had the same kind of importance as in many other cultures. The largest group were (and still are) the members of the Mayan language family, speaking over 20 languages.

The Maya Classic Period lasted about 600 years in the early centuries a.d., and many buildings and monuments were erected during this time, especially throughout the jungle zone, which was the heart of the Maya civilization. There seems to have been no metallurgy in use, and indeed, there are no native metals in the limestone-based region. Domestic animals were limited to the dog, turkey, and bee. Hunting and fishing maintained an important role in the economy. At the end of the Classic, a conservative estimate puts the Maya at about 20 million people (Wilhelmy 1981, pp. 405-408). Maya cities were large and sprawling aggregates, often improperly referred to as "ceremonial centres." Contemporary cities in highland Mexico show a much more formal city layout. Most communitites were under the domination of hereditary rulers who practiced polygamy and appear on monuments or in books garbed as deities. Blood offerings and sacrifices of plants, animals, and human beings were common. In both areas, astronomical-astrological-religious factors entered into the planning of sites.

Although we know little of observational techniques of Mesoamerican astronomers, it is apparent that various sighting devices were in use and there is some evidence that obsidian mirrors were used as observing instruments. See the possible Maya astronomer in Figure 12.2.

Astronomy not only entered into the planning of sites and the layout of buildings, but it also was recorded in books and inscriptions. In highland Mexico, the most important books for astronomical study are the Borgia codex, the exact origin of which is in dispute, and the Vienna codex, perhaps from the Mixtecs, but a number of others, such as the Nuttall (or Zouche) codex, also from the Mixtecs, contain some important data. From the Maya, the Dresden codex has very important materials, including tables of planetary motions. Tables for Venus and Mars are now generally accepted. There is also astronomical material in the Paris and Madrid codices. Another book, the authenticity of which is still somewhat in doubt, is the Grolier codex, which contains a Venus table. Most of the several hundred known and legible Mayan inscriptions provide at least some astronomical knowledge, particularly on the phases of the Moon. Some give substantial amounts of astronomical information. Our understanding of Mesoamerican astronomy is increasing rapidly, but it is hardly an exaggeration to say that we know nothing of the history of astronomy in the region. It is worth pointing out that we do not know the native names of the various books that have been mentioned (indeed, there is little to suggest that they had names). Their present names usually derive from the European cities to which they were taken after the Spanish conquest, or from collectors or scholars. The books are actually folded pages of animal skin or bark paper, covered with lime plaster and painted.

Susan Milbrath (1999) has attempted to synthesize what is known of modern Maya stories and rituals relating explicitly or implicitly to astronomical lore and calendrics. She then compares this material to the iconography of the classic Maya on monuments and ceramics and relates it to specifically astronomical iconography in the Mayan codices. She also attempts to recognize associations of iconography with

Figure 12.1. The Mesoamerica region, an area that is now cultural traits in pre-Columbian times. Map kindly provided by southern Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, most of El Salvador, and David Mouritsen of Calgary. parts of Honduras, was inhabited by people who shared many

real-time astronomical events. In all of these studies, she uses the 584283 correlation of the Maya calendar with our own (see Table 12.1 and §12.3 for the definition of the "correlation problem"). Milbrath has extensive discussions on Maya "constellations" and makes a serious effort to determine the mythical roles of planets and their identities as birds, animals, and gods. The approach integrates the evidence from folklore and iconography. The mythical imagery of Maya astronomy is better treated here than anywhere else. The calendrical evidence, however, is treated only minimally. The numerous illustrations are well chosen and helpful, but there are some curious flaws in the textual material. The most important of these is Milbrath's (1999, pp. 60-63) view that some kind of leap year intercalation was in effect in the post-Classic period, although this is inconsistent with the Thompson correlation, which she accepts. It is her view that the imagery of the Madrid Codex is seasonal and corresponds with the seasonal features of the Landa "year," to be discussed in §12.17.

A good view of where we now stand may be obtained in recent summaries by Thompson (1974), Aveni (1976), Lounsbury (1978), and Justeson (1989), with new interpretations by Bricker and Bricker (1983,1986,1989), by Kelley (1980,1983,1987, and 1989), and by S. Snow (1986). Kelley's

Figure 12.2. A dandy or an astronomer? A Jaina Island figurine, ff. P. Gendrop. Drawing by Sharon Hanna.

12.2. Structure of the Calendar and the Mayan Number System Table 12.1. Mesoamerican chronology.

Time frame


Comments b.c.

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