Studying Astronomy in a Cultural Context

17 May 2016 Written by   Anthony Aveni
Anthony Aveni Anthony Aveni

The recent story about the Canadian student who discovered a Maya city by placing a star map over a map of the Yucatán resonates with stories about the Maya in 2012, in which celestial alignments were said by some to have clocked the end of the world. Two points strike me.

First, how the Maya represented what they saw in the sky, based on evidence, seems nothing like our way of doing it. The closest thing to an indigenous Maya map is probably the zodiac in the Paris Codex, which shows a lineup of thirteen constellations, only one of which (Scorpio) may bear any resemblance to one of our own. People who have studied this document for years don't agree on what star patterns they represent. Another approximation of an indigenous Maya star chart may be the "world diagram" in the Madrid Codex, which is very different from what we think of as a map. So why should we use our modern star maps to look for their ancient civic arrangements (which entirely leaves aside the question of why the Maya would be motivated to build their cities in this exacting fashion)?

Precise scalar maps representing "real" space are Western inventions, devised by the Greeks and passed down to us through the Renaissance (see chapter 3 of my Uncommon Sense). True, the Maya (and many other cultures) sought to create sacred space here on earth to represent what they imagined to be in heaven. (Recall the lines of the Lord's Prayer: "on earth as it is in heaven.") And indeed the Maya patterned many of their cities after the four directions and even created architectural alignments to important celestial bodies, but the idea that such total replication over a vast area was precise is unfounded. This makes me wonder: perhaps we would like the Maya to be like us. Which leads to my second point.

The stories I've read in the past few days miss the point that this penchant for precision, fueled by our techno-dependence, is modern. My students walk around with star maps on their electronic devices that make it unnecessary to go out and look at the sky. Those who do look at the sky rather than an electronic facsimile see something quite different: no connecting lines, bright stars that don't look bigger than faint stars, and a Milky Way that's difficult to trace out precisely. Still we are hypnotized by the notion that we can extract detailed information about what was going on in the minds of people who lived in a very different world, with different needs and different beliefs and attitudes long ago. And so our ethnocentric leanings cause us to erect cardboard ancestors of ourselves.

If I've learned anything from all these years of studying astronomy in a cultural context it is this: one of the wonders of cultural diversity lies in the discovery of just how different we really are.


Anthony Aveni is the Russell Colgate Distinguished University Professor of Astronomy, Anthropology, and Native American Studies at Colgate University. He has researched and written about Maya astronomy for more than four decades. He was named a US National Professor of the Year and was awarded the H. B. Nicholson Medal for Excellence in Research in Mesoamerican Studies by Harvard's Peabody Museum. His latest book, Apocalyptic Anxiety, has just been released.

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