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Ancient Maya Credited with Major Scientific Advances

It was a hot, sticky day in Belize. We had been warned to wear our hats and sunscreen and to drink lots of water. My wife, Gail, and I were visiting Altun Ha, an ancient Maya site near Belize City, the largest city in this Central American country.

Our group gathered in the shade of a large tree as a tour guide explained that the Ancient Maya understood, 4,000 years ago, scientific and mathematical concepts that we take for granted today. I wondered how they developed these advanced concepts of astronomy, mathematics and time measurement so, after returning from our trip, I talked with Annebel Lewis, a socio-cultural anthropologist.

Lewis, a retired professor at California State University, now lives in the Richmond area and teaches anthropology at the Chesterfield Lifelong Learning Institute. I asked her why ancient cultures became so interested in observing the skies and plotting the paths of the stars and planets.

“Down here was chaos. Up there was order,” Lewis said. “People in ancient civilizations used mythology to understand the universe and how they were connected to it.” Myths developed from seeing the sun move across the sky and changing seasons. Those observations, in turn, resulted in advanced scientific knowledge in ancient cultures, such as the Maya, she said.

The Maya culture in Central America developed around 2000 B.C. The Maya understood the concept of zero as early as 36 B.C. and are believed to have worked with numbers into the hundreds of millions. They didn't possess the concept of fractions but made accurate astronomical calculations, using only sticks as instruments.

The classical period of the Maya, when they made major scientific advances, was from about 250 to 900 A.D. The Maya observed and tracked the sun, the moon and Venus. They computed the length of a year at 365.2420 days, very close to modern calculations of 365.2422 days. They developed a solar calendar to keep track of the seasons and a ritual calendar for worship, according to the website of the National Institute of Culture and History in Belize.

“Something in a culture makes mathematics important,” Lewis said. The Maya used math in daily activities such as buying and selling and in more complex activities like predicting eclipses.

The Maya number system was based on 20 rather than 10. The system probably developed from counting both fingers and toes. The numerals consisted of only three symbols: zero, represented as a shell shape; one, a dot; and five, a bar. Three dots meant three; a bar and one dot meant six, and so on, according to the Canadian Museum of History website.

The ancient Maya lived in cities of up to 60,000 people. Pyramids, temples and other monuments dominated their cities. The pyramids and temples, often made of stone and adobe, were used for worship and burial. Some pyramids even had an inner layer of mica, believed to be for insulation.

In about 900 A.D. the Maya suddenly sealed their pyramids and monuments, dispersed and formed agricultural villages, according to Lewis. Scholars debate whether overpopulation, war or some other factor was the cause.

“The Maya had an excellent writing system,” Lewis said, “but over time it got worse” as abbreviations crept in and the writing became less descriptive. The Maya writing system continued until it was prohibited by the Spanish in the first half of the 16th century, but Mayan still is spoken.

Our tour guide, who is of Maya desent, explained that English is the primary language today in Belize, formerly known as British Honduras. “We would be speaking Spanish,” he said, but the British defeated the Spanish in 1789. The anniversary of the battle is a national holiday in Belize.

About six million Maya live today in Belize, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico. Guatemala has the largest population of Maya.