Hundreds of years in the future

Ancient civilization calculated eclipse dates without knowing how celestial bodies move

People today aren't the only ones who are fascinated by darkness descending in the middle of the day. Ancient civilizations tracked solar eclipses, too - although their calculations were done without the benefit of today's scientific equipment.

The Mayans were extremely literate, University of Colorado anthropology professor Payson Sheets said. Not just literate, but the most literate of any new world civilization "by a long shot."

The ancient civilization would diligently record its history, including when kings and queens were crowned, equinoxes and solstices, and solar and lunar eclipses.

"Every century of recording, they would get more accurate," Sheets said. "The prediction would be more precise."

Just how precise? Mayan experts Harvey and Victoria Bricker wanted to know. But that's easier said than done.

"The Spanish thought that some of their writing was the work of the devil and they were there to convert the Maya to Christianity so the Spanish destroyed every book they could," Sheets said.

Of the thousands and thousands of books, only four survived the Spanish conquest, he said. Only one was preserved in its entirety: The Dresden Codex, named for the city where it is kept.

Using the hundreds-of-years-old codex, the Brickers predicted in 1983 that the next solar eclipse in the Mayan area, which includes modern-day Guatemala, Belize and parts of Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador, would take place on July 11, 1991. And they were right.

"I think that is knock down, drag out spectacular," Sheets said. "This is from a society that does not understand the movement of planets and moons around the planet and the planets around the sun."

For example, the Mayans did not know that the sun is both 400 times larger than the moon and 400 times farther away.

Being able to accurately predict solar eclipses could play into the hands of royalty, Sheets said. He speculated that a king who predicts an eclipse could be seen as both powerful and powerfully connected with the sun god Kinich Ahau by the lower class Mayans, who were likely not literate.

That kind of prediction could be used for social control, especially because the sun was a deity, Sheets said, noting that there's no documentation to support his speculation.

Denver Post