Ancient Archaeoastronomy of the Mesoamericans
For centuries civilizations have relied on the stars in many aspects of their daily lives. Whether heavenly bodies were used for navigation, ceremonial, insight for agriculture, or socio-political reasons these people often put celestial bodies at the center of their ideology. Many civilizations held these celestial bodies in such high regard that they integrated their whole society around certain celestial bodies and the annual celestial events, such as the equinoxes and the solstices, and very often associated these bodies and occurrences with their gods. One such people, the Mesoamericans seemed to have a tight synthesis between archaeoastronomy and their daily life. The purpose of this paper is to show how the different people that were associated with Mesoamerica regarded celestial bodies and how they integrated certain celestial events in their architecture, ideology, and daily life.
First, a definition of archaeoastronomy is warranted to allow for a better understanding of what is being discussed herein. A.F. Aveni defined archaeastronomy in his article entitled, “Archaeoastronomy in Mesoamerica and Peru: Comment: as “more than the study of ancient astronomy through the use of archeological data and the use of ancient texts. Archaeoastronomy is an interdisciplinary meeting ground for those who are concerned about the agriculture research papers perception and conception of the natural world by the people of ancient civilizations.” (Averi; 165). To summarize this it could be said that archaeoastronomy is not only what these ancient people saw and recorded when they looked into the skies, but also how they implemented what they saw and drew conclusions based on these findings that were carried over to aspects of their lives such as religious, agricultural, and even city planning. Averi is proposing the argument that there is more than meets the eye where archaeoastronomy is concerned. That archaeoastronomy is not only scientific data, but also what contexts these findings are plugged into in order to form an ideology based on celestial bodies or events. These implementations of celestial bodies and events in different facets of pre-Columbian cultures of the Mesoamerican are often seen in the art, architecture, and in many of the recorded religious practices that have been preserved via codices. Even though Averi may also argue that Teotihuacan is situated in a specific fashion because the alignment of it is in line with Cerro Gordo (which was the primary place where they drew water) that does not necessarily mean that archaeoastronomy does not have a scientific leg to stand on. In fact, offering multiple theories of this orientation stimulates new debates which may, ultimately, uncover new data concerning the specific reason that Teotihuacan is oriented the way that it is. While Averi holds fast to his argument many others seem to think that the astronomical alignment of Teotihuacan has to do with specific events. For example, some anthropologists seem to think that the fifteen-point-five degree orientation of the Pyramid of the Sun correlates with the setting of the sun on August 13th. Moreover, the Pyramid of the Moon’s summit has been associated with the telling of noon and midnight by its orientation. It would be hard to believe that the orientation of these structures and the coinciding relationship between celestial events are pure coincidence.
Next, it is unlikely that civilizations ignored the heavens and what they saw in the night sky. There is so much data to the contrary. Although Averi may not think that the orientation of Teotihuacan has anything to do with celestial events he does argue that many civilizations were conscious of the heavens; their orientation in the sky, and the paths in which they travel nightly (and daily). According to an article that Averi wrote entitled, “Tropical Archeoastronomy” he states that many of these civilizations had a conscious awareness of their celestial surroundings. He wrote, “In all ancient societies, the sky and its contents lay at the very base of human cognition. Early hunter-gatherers and later sedentary societies were profoundly influenced by the dependable precision of cyclic recurrence unfolding in the celestial canopy.” (Avery; 161).
Averi points out that the celestial bodies and their positions (and paths) were appreciated by ancient civilizations and were used in such ways, for example, as in aiding seafarers in navigation. In his paper, Averi goes on to explain some of the Mesoamerican astronomical concepts. He focuses on the Maya and commented about their advanced forms of writing, mathematics and astronomy. He goes on to talk about how they “also used the horizon system to monitor celestial events and to mark time.” (Averi;162). For example, Averi talks about stone markers that were used to mark certain celestial events and their correlation to terrestrial events. He writes, “Stone markers extending from behind Campo Santo up to the top of high hill west of town. From Campo Santo to top approx. 1.5km. Sun rises on lines PS & OS observed from stones O & P on March 19th 1940 two days before the equinox.” (Averi;162-3). This information, in itself, tells us nothing extraordinary about the stone markers, however, it does give a little bit of background information and helps a reader to form a mental image in their mind. It sets the scene for the next quote. Averi then writes, “Sun rises this day at 6 degrees 31.5 ms. Direction observed with simple adjustable compass. Observations are made at the stone today by zahorins (shamans) for planting and harvesting.” (Averi;162-3). This passage, although lengthy and filled with scientific jargon, does show that these marker stones that were erected can be, and were/are, used in conjunction with the planting and harvesting of the crops. Think of these markers as a “Maya Agriculture Almanac”. Every year a shaman can go to the stones and, with the simplest of instruments, make detailed calculations that will be used in ensuring a positive effect on their agriculture. Without markers such as these ancient Mayas would have had a harder time trying to figure out when to plant their crops to ensure optimum yield, and when to harvest in order to ensure optimum quality of their crops.