Have We Been Misreading a Crucial Maya Codex for Centuries?

for National Geographic

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To the modern stargazer, the planet Venus is just another point of light in the night sky. But for the ancient Maya, the brilliant light of Venus was an omen of war that guided ritual activity, prompted great battles, and was even used as shorthand for “total destruction.”

Archaeologists have long looked to Venus to understand Maya calendars and tradition. But now, a fresh look at an ancient text called the Dresden Codex suggests that our understanding of how the Maya tracked Venus for their celestial calendars may be all wrong.

By combining a new reading of the text, tricky mathematical equations, and field observations,Gerardo Aldana at the University of California, Santa Barbara has simplified the way Maya scribes would have corrected their calendars.

“There is some really elegant math that’s going on there that has not been recognized before,” says Aldana.

His work not only casts new light on how the Maya tied their ceremonies to the sky, it may also call into question every date we have for events in the ancient Maya world. (Also see “Teen’s ‘Discovery’ of Maya City Is a Very Western Mistake.”)