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The Question

(Submitted September 17, 1998)

Why did ancient civilizations, like Mayans and Greeks, have such advanced Astronomy? How did they build their observatories?

The Answer

Have you ever gone to a completely dark site, far, far away from any cities or even a small village, on a clear, dark night, and watched the stars? Many city dwellers today don't know how overwhelmingly beautiful the night sky can be, when there are no street lights around. Yet, there are many who enjoy stargazing as a hobby. The ancient peoples had a much better view of the night sky than we usually do, and they had little entertainment during the night (no MTV, no electric guitars, no Blockbusters, no Simpsons, no Friends, no NFL, no World Series), so they were well motivated to gaze at the sky.

Any civilizations with advanced enough astronomy gained practical advantages, too. A calendar, based on the regular patterns of the Sun, the Moon, and the stars, is essential if you want to be successful at agriculture in temperate climates. Astronomy gives you navigation, too -- not only at sea (the Polynesians being the most amazing example), but being able to tell which way is north at night may well be an advantage if you wanted to hunt or wage a battle at night.

It is hard to compare the Greeks and the Mayans because they lived several thousand years apart. The Ancient Greek society seemed to consider knowledge and learning to be an important part of their culture - thus studying astronomy was a natural extension of that.

http://explorable.com/greek-astronomy.html
http://galileo.phys.virginia.edu/classes/109N/lectures/greek_astro.htm.

I would guess that astronomy was an important part of the Mayan religion, which is why they studied it. You'll have to research that part yourself. There are a lot of good resources on the web...I'll help you out with the first few.

Here are a couple of links on Mayan Astronomy: http://explorable.com/mayan-astronomy.html
http://ircamera.as.arizona.edu/NatSci102/NatSci102/text/extmayaastronomy.htm

This one includes more general information about the Mayan culture.
http://www.sci.mus.mn.us/sln/ma/top.html

I don't believe either culture used telescopes, but instead used their eyes and other aids (like pyramids in the case of the Mayans) to study the different positions of planets and the motions of the sky above them. You might want to check out some general history of astronomy sites to see when the telescope was invented, and what other cultures were doing (i.e. the Britons with Stonehenge...)

http://www.wam.umd.edu/~tlaloc/archastro/
http://www.astro.uni-bonn.de/~pbrosche/hist_astr/ha_items_archaeo.html

Maggie Masetti & Koji Mukai
for Ask an Astrophysicist

(Links updated in 2012 November)

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