Was This Maya Manuscript Used To Plan The Next Party?

Mysterious Dresden Codex may have predicted future holidays
Venus Table Dresden Codex - Maya
An ancient Mayan calendar, known as the Dresden Codex, may have been used to plan holiday celebrations, says a UC Santa Barbara anthropologist. The calendar, which tracks the trajectory of the planet Venus, may have been used for planning parties that coincided with particular positions of Venus in the sky. UC Santa Barbara

While the Mayan people of Central America are known colloquially for “predicting” the “end of the world,” it is well known that they were a tad obsessed with studying the stars and making calendars, as were the ancient Greeks, Chinese and other cultures.

Now, one researcher from UC Santa Barbara believes the Mayans could have been like them in other ways, using the stars to try and plan out future dates for holidays.

Gerardo Aldana, an anthropologist and professor of Chicana and Chicano studies, has studied the Venus table from the famous Dresden Codex, one of the few remaining Maya manuscripts left in the world.

(Few are left because invading peoples made great efforts to destroy Maya works, and then stole others and brought them back to Europe for kings and queens. Hence, why the script is named the “Dresden” Codex, as in Dresden, Germany.)

Though the Dresden Codex sat in a German library for many years, it has been studied from the mid-19th century, where researchers have tried to translate its writings. And since this time, it has come under the understanding that half of the manuscript is studying the path of Venus through the sky, though some of the numbers do not always seem to add up.

tourists walking around the Chich'en Itza Observatory

This brought Aldana to ask why the Maya were so obsessed to create this Venus table.

“They [the Maya] knew it was wrong, but the numerology was more important. And that’s what scholars have been saying for the last 70 years,” Aldana said in a UC press release.

Instead, Aldana thought to Copernicus and other western scientists, who were known to try and use the positions of the stars and planets to predict the future dates of holidays, like Easter. And it clicked for Aldana.

“They’re using Venus not just to strictly chart when it was going to appear, but they were using it for their ritual cycles,” he said.

“They had ritual activities when the whole city would come together and they would do certain events based on the observation of Venus. And that has to have a degree of accuracy, but it doesn’t have to have overwhelming accuracy.”

Aldana also believes that correction numbers used throughout the table, used to help with rounding days to calendar numbers from decimals, were not used in a serial fashion, adding in a row.

Instead, he shows that if you add different correction numbers independently, you get a functioning calendar which isn’t obsessive over precision.

The correction has to take place just like in our current calendar system, where we have to add leap days and seconds to correct for the movements of the earth.

The Maya Venus calendar was most likely created between 800 and 1000 CE, about 500 or more years before Copernicus and other western thinkers were doing their work. It is unknown who created the work, but it is believed to have been created under the patronage of K’ak’ U Pakal K’awiil, a prominent figure in Chich’en Itza.

“This is the part that I find to be most rewarding, that when we get in here, we’re looking at the work of an individual Mayan, and we could call him or her a scientist, an astronomer,” Aldana said. “This person, who’s witnessing events at this one city during this very specific period of time, created, through their own creativity, this mathematical innovation.”