The Dresden Codex (translated from the Latin word Codex Dresdensis) is an ancient Mayan text dating back to the 11th century containing astronomical and mathematical calculations. This text has been studied extensively for the past century and as a result the Mayans are now well-known for their impressive knowledge of astronomy.

The Venus Table

Within the Dresden Codex lies the Venus Table, a text that explains the movement and irregular cycle of Venus, the second planet from the sun. For many years, it was assumed that much of the content in the text was based on numerology, the study of how numbers affect an event or a person’s life. The accuracy of their calculations and the inclusion of what is essentially a ‘leap year’ in the Mayan calendar, although impressive and frequently used in astrology, were “vastly misunderstood” according to University of California, Santa Barbara’s anthropology and Mayan history professor, Gerardo Aldana.

Similar to how our Gregorian calendar includes leap years, the Preface to the Venus Table on Page 24 of the Dresden Codex includes a “mathematical subtlety” that represents a correction for Venus’ irregular cycle of 583.92 days. This was originally viewed as a numerological oddity, when in fact it was a scientific form of record-keeping pertaining to the movements of Venus. “So that means if you do anything on a calendar that’s based on days as a basic unit [using Venus but without the correction], there is going to be an error that accrues,” Aldana stated.

Aldana explained that the mathematical correction of their “Venus calendar” may be traced back to the city of Chich’en Itza during the Terminal Classic period (AD 800-1000). The calculation was likely completed under the patronage of the infamous K’ak’ U Pakal K’awiil, who was likely a scientist or scholar. “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. . . . 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,” said Aldana.

The Sophisticated Mathematical Innovation Everyone Overlooked

In his new paper published in the Journal of Astronomy in Culture, Aldana claimed that the Venus Table represents an incredible discovery in both mathematics and astronomy. His analysis uses the study of Mayan hieroglyphics (epigraphy), archaeology, and astronomy to paint a more accurate picture of the Venus Table. Aldana sought to determine when this discovery was made and what it meant to them at the time. While studying the table’s hieroglyphics, he discovered that a common verb used, k’al, was formerly misinterpreted and actually means ‘to enclose,’ allowing him to review the text in a different light.

“So what I’m saying is, let’s step back and make a different assumption,” Aldana explains. “Let’s assume that they had historical records and they were keeping historical records of astronomical events and they were consulting them in the future — exactly what the Greeks did and the Egyptians and everybody else.”

Aldana traveled all the way to Copán, Honduras, to test this hypothesis at another Mayan archaeological site there. The records of Venus’ movements there corresponded with those found in the Dresden Codex.

Interestingly enough, the Mayan’s work is similar to that of Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus. 500 years after the Mayan’s discovery was made, Nicholas stumbled upon the heliocentric model (the sun at the centre of the solar system) while predicting all of the future dates Easter would fall upon. Aldana recognized that same model in the Venus Table, leading him to believe that the Mayan’s didn’t just document Venus’ movements for historical means, but that they were using it to plan rituals. Aldana claimed that the entire city would collectively participate in events based on Venus’ movements.

Why the Mayans’ Discovery is Still Important Today

Aldana’s analysis provides some cultural insight into the Mayan people. Venus held significant importance to them, as they used its movement to predict the future and time attacks and strategic events during war. Although it is unclear which individual made the discovery, we now know it was the Mayans and we’re able to ‘give credit where credit was due.’ As Aldana explained:

If you say it’s just numerology that this date corresponds to; it’s not based on anything you can see. And if you say, ‘We’re just going to manipulate them [the corrections written] until they give us the most accurate trajectory,’ you’re not confining that whole thing in any historical time. . . . 
If, on the other hand, you say, ‘This is based on a historical record,’ that’s going to nail down the range of possibilities. And if you say that they were correcting it for a certain kind of purpose, then all of a sudden you have a very small window of when this discovery could have occurred.


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