STONE MARKERS ON THE HORIZON: ANCIENT ASTRONOMERS IN THE AMERICAS AND WHAT WE ARE MISSING
The level of sophistication of the knowledge of ancient peoples around the entire world when it came to studying, predicting, and recording celestial events in their skies has been a major discovery and focus of late 20th century archeology. This study has attracted many scholars from various fields, resulting in an ever-growing body of knowledge that is difficult for even the interested professional to keep up with--and positively mind-boggling for the casually interested amateur or tourist. In the past five months this writer has been privileged to visit some of the most important sites in Central and South America to personally get a "feel" for the capabilities of these ancient peoples in both the area of astronomy and stone construction, two of my principal interests in the field for the last forty years.
Having only recently completed my own small effort to contribute in some way to expanding the awareness of the abilities of these ancient astronomers with the publication of THE CORN MAIDEN'S GIFT, the fifth and next to last installment in my fictional series on the peopling of North America, The People of the Stone, it could not have been a better time to take a look at some of the actual sites that modern archeololgy has revealed. As I begin the final book in the series, CHILDREN OF THE CIRCLE, any look at the inevitable destruction of post-conquest American cultures that occurred leaves us with often enigmatic and hard to find remains of these once great and incredibly advanced people who inhabited the New World for thousands of years and begs us to learn their hidden or obvious secrets left behind before their complex societies were brought down, almost in the blink of an eye. Inevitably two things have occurred, I believe, that have caused professionals and others to ignore too many times--or even to fail to search for--some of the obvious implications of these amazing cultures. One is the speed with which they disintegrated, especially those in the path of the Spanish and their willing accomplices, the Catholic Church. The second is the more modern tendency by researchers to focus much of their efforts on the reasons for the decline and fall of people like the Inca, Maya, Moundbuilders, and others, who had already begun their decline in pre-contact times, rather than to look for the processes that brought them into existence in the first place. Fortunately, in recent years at least, the decipherment of Mayan hieroglyphs and more sophisticated interpretations of Inca and other large culture origins have awakened a new awareness of the incredible capabilities of these people as ancient astronomers.
Unfortunately, however, in North America the results have not been as dramatic. Obviously much of this is due to the fact that no writing systems were apparently developed, and the important Classic Period sites were mostly constructed in more easily destroyed earth, rather than as stone structures. However, there are enough of these to form some speculation (see the earlier entry in this blog series Mystery of the Stone Mounds and Piling Up the Stones). Tantalizing clues, though, remain in places like Cahokia, the largest mound complex in North America and the primary setting of my last book, and in many smaller sites along the great Ohio River Valley, the central location of this author's entire six-part series (see also the earlier blog entry here on Squier and Davis for more info on vanished earthen mound complexes in eastern North America). Of course, better documented sites (this time built of stone) existed contemporaneously in the Southwest (Chaco Canyon to name but one recently re-evaluated locale), and many of these sites have taken on increasingly more complex interpretations as to their potential astronomical significance.
One thing, however, becomes increasingly clear, at least to this writer as he reflects upon the major sites he has been privileged to visit in the last months (Machu Picchu and Chichen Itza to name only two), and that is the inescapable fact that the level of knowledge of ancient astronomers in the New World beginning as early as 2,000 plus years ago rivaled and perhaps exceeded anything known in places like Egypt, Stonehenge, or any of the other well-known structures used as an astronomical observatory in the ancient world. As someone who has always been interested in looking first at the possible solar observational possibilities of any site--especially those involving large inputs of labor--it would seem that only recently has modern archeology begun to remove some of the clouds that have arisen almost to the level of becoming their own self-sustaining myth about some of these ancient places. Let's look at just one or two possible examples and explanations for this, based upon my own both recent and long-standing experience on the matter of ancient astronomers and stonework sites.
SACRED PRECINCTS VERSUS THE IDEA OF ANCIENT CITIES
I would say that one of the most common errors made in labeling ancient sites, which has continued to play a part in the misrepresentation of many of them, is the long-standing practice of referring to many non-urban centers as ancient "cities". In a previous blog entry on Machu Picchu, I discussed how Hiram Bingham's initial efforts to label that critical site as the "Lost City of the Incas" led to two generations of the perpetuation of misinformation. A personal visit to that important site left me with little doubt that it was a major solar and lunar observatory with structures for the housing of a minimal number of professional "Priests" (or whatever we choose to call these early scientists) and a royal residence, perhaps, with little else to dignify the granting of the term City to the site. Its isolation has always baffled us. Was it a refuge or a fortress? The too easy answer in the absence of real insight was to designate it as the last refuge of the royal Inca virgins or some other facile explanation based on earlier shoddy archeology or wishful thinking. One need only stand there with a good compass in hand and track the amazing sightlines along distant, immovable, ridgelines--just as the Inca did with their "hitching post" stones, shadow rocks, and other doorways and apertures in various alignments--is to come away with the secure knowledge that this was no city, fortress, or other common structure. In the general absence of flat horizons elsewhere, Inca astronomers chose this location very deliberately for repeatable celestial observation, I am convinced, while also keeping its true purpose and location relatively unknown even among their own people. That the knowledge of even the existence of this important site virtually disappeared among the few survivors of the royal Inca bloodline (who were also the priesthood) shortly after the bloody civil war preceding the arrival of Pizarro--along with the additional exterminations of Inca "heresies" perpetrated by the Spanish themselves--within a generation further adds to the confounding mystery of the site. At the same time this confounding fact should lead us to suspect that this site itself was far from a mere royal winter retreat or other such simplistic explanation, when we consider the subsequent events of decades of rebellion by the royal survivors against their conquerors. Such a site as Machu Picchu, if known, would have surely found its way into the major events and records thereof that played out in Peru over the next half century. Furthermore, recent detailed investigations of Andean myth, along with its basis in astronomical recordings of incredible detail by researchers such as William Sullivan (in his important book The Secret of the Incas), continue to reveal almost universal sophistication in early astronomy that continues to baffle less forward thinking scholars in many fields.
Just last week I visited the walled "City" of Tulum on the east coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. (Indeed the word "tulum" in Maya means 'fortress' or 'walled'.) I was most fortunate to be there at dusk on the evening following the winter solstice, when a lunar eclipse had been observable there the previous night, Wow! I can say without hesitation that those walls were not designed to be defensive, except in a last resort, and that the "city" of Tulum is far too small to be a city at all, based upon the house platforms remaining within those walls. The principal structures are clearly of observational intent, and this is the only important coastal Mayan site built directly on a promontory with a clear FLAT (emphasis is mine) view of the eastern horizon in almost three directions to cover both solstice extremes as well as a straight-line due eastern alignment, marked by three doorways of different structures in line. I am convinced that this was an important late-Mayan solar calculator with very little purpose as either a residential or defensive stoneworks, at least until the end, perhaps. That same day I had earlier visited another important, but less known Mayan complex at Coba, lying in direct line with Tulum and Chichen Itza to the northwest. Coba appears to be ideally situated as a ceremonial stop--but this time with a major urban population and multiple periods of occupation--between these other two primarily ceremonial centers capable of supporting both with labor and food.
Chichen Itza, much like Machu Picchu, is one of the most visited and discussed prehistoric sites in the Americas. Surprisingly, however, recent and on-going excavations at this well-known Mayan temple complex, continue to push back the earliest construction phases there and to expand our knowledge of the complexity of the site. This is the ultimate expression of the Mayan calendar, which by everyone's admission is perhaps the most sophisticated one in all of human history. Our excellent native Mayan guide on my recent visit there time and again revealed some new and amazing fact about the great pyramid of Kulculcan, and the implications of the level of long-term planning to construct and manage its many solar. lunar, and stellar (after all the Mayans were just as obsessed with the movements of Venus as with the sun and the moon) as were clearly evident at the site. Personal conversations with this guide later in the day revealed the local custom of still sitting out in the early evening and greeting the arrival of the Evening Star, much in the same manner--without the attendant ceremonies--as did countless generations of Mayan people earlier. Chichen Itza has become mostly synonymous with the sacrificial well and the sun pyramid there, but the existence of the largest ceremonial ball court in the Americas and the important Temple of the Warriors, flanking the Great Pyramid cannot be overstated when viewing it as a regional ritual complex in post Classic Mayan times for wider celestial markings at key event dates. New excavations are pushing back the initial building stages of the central pyramid, perhaps well beyond the generally accepted post-classic Mayan dates for this site--which, by the way, shows little evidence of being a large urban center with markets, suburbs, fields, etc either, although there are obviously many easily accessed cities in the larger region.
Was it possibly the Mayan's last and greatest expression of their obsession with long lengths of time based upon the movements of Celestial bodies? And was Tulum the 'check-point' for unobstructed views of the eastern horizon necessary for the ancient astronomers to make their exacting observations and calculations to be recorded at Chichen Itza and elsewhere? In the same vein, was Machu Picchu also the Inca's ultimate expression and storehouse of hundreds, maybe thousands of years of accumulated knowledge in their region about the heavenly events that apparently ordered and drove their very lives, accompanied by what to us remain seemingly incomprehensible and even barbaric rituals to commemorate their spiritual obsession with the sun, moon, and stars? Too often even professional researchers seem to get caught up in these exotic rituals at the expense of further investigating the actual "science" being practiced alongside of them. Indeed, the mere assignment of the word Science to these early peoples still gives many learned investigators--and the mass media which too often sensationalizes their findings to exploit mass appeal--pause for fear of being labeled unfairly as putting too much intelligence in the hands of these lost, colonialized cultures, whose descendants still occupy the land that was once theirs exclusively. Just how smart were they--not how far have they fallen--is a question we should be asking more often than we do. In my most recent book, The Corn Maiden's Gift, I attempt to draw some conclusions about this question by analyzing how a potential ritual, based upon celestial origins, originates and is diffused from one culture to another, possibly through the simple intervention of one of these unknown, dynamic prehistoric individuals.
WAS NINETY DEGREES WEST THE REAL PRIME MERIDIAN FOR THE RECKONING OF SOLAR TIME, AND IS THERE A "MAYAN MERIDIAN" THAT HAS ESCAPED OUR NOTICE?
In reviewing my own observations and comparisons of the astronomical implications of North America sites, such as the great Monk's Mound at Cahokia in East St. Louis, I was naturally looking for parallels with some of the better known and more complete and studied sites of Central and South America. Recent studies in the Guatemalan jungle near the Mexican border in Yucatan have begun to reveal what might be the Latin American equivalent of Cahokia (or Giza even), at least in terms of relative size. The great temple mound site of El Mirador there has begun to attract increasing attention because of both its incredible size and its age and may represent the very beginnings of Mayan cultural ascendancy over 2,000 years ago. Some archeologists are saying that the main temple mound with its as yet unrevealed platforms might soon be shown to be the largest prehistoric structure anywhere in the world (the Great Pyramid of Egypt included). If so, then a fuller examination of the place of Mayan cosmology in the larger scheme of things in terms of a more universal along with specifically regional views of prehistory will certainly be warranted. The interior jungles of the Yucatan Peninsula continue to reveal new ruins and readable scripts that will gradually expand our knowledge of ancient astronomical knowledge considerably for years to come, I firmly believe.
However, in taking a closer look at the location of El Mirador and other important sites and then extrapolating to the distant reaches of interior North America, some intriguing similarities become apparent. Location! Location! Location! That is the dictum of both business and real estate success, and it is increasingly apparent that such was the truth 2,000 or more years ago as well, at least when it came to situating important ceremonial centers dedicated to the movements of the stars, sun, and moon. Here we have the largest structure in South America (El Mirador) and the largest structure in North America (Cahokia) literally more than two thousand miles apart, with both dedicated to clear and measurable solar sightlines on important days, with both being built on the flattest land available and both with multi-tiered platforms to view to the far horizons, and both sit virtually astride the same degree of longitude--90 degrees west! They are not just close--they are On It basically! Other major sites throughout Yucatan covering the entire time spectrum of the Mayan repeating calendar from pre-classic (El Mirador) to post-classic (Chichen Itza) are built within one to three degrees--mainly east--of this critical line. Tikal, the great Classic period site to the south also sits virtually on 90 degrees west as well (90 degrees 10 min. W)--as does the major post Classic site of Uxmal (89 degrees 54 minutes W) with its well-know observatory structures to the north, along with its sister site, Kabah, nine miles to the Southwest even closer to 90.
Here is a list of notable Mayan ruins with established celestially significant structures that are situated within one degree or less of 90 degrees west longitude: Dzibilchaltun, Uxmal, Kabah, Mayapan, Edzna, Calakmul, Uaxactun, Sieba, Tikal, and El Mirador. If two is a coincidence and three is pattern, what is TEN? And what then is Eleven--if it is two thousand miles away across a major body of water? (Note: Even before the author had made these connections explicitly, the plot-line of The Corn Maiden's Gift had generated a main character who makes the physical voyage between Cahokia and the Mayan coast on just such a journey of cultural and spiritual discovery involving celestial deities.)
What is, or was, it about 90 degrees west longitude that gave these early astronomers the best views or most accurate calculation possibilities to fulfill an obsession with time and space that led them to build some of the greatest structures in human history to mark both their existence and their enduring impact on future generations? Did this particular longitude position provide a unique view of celestial events at some important past time exclusive to the western hemisphere? We know that the Maya paid particular attention to the movements of Venus, and we also know that the construction of multiple celestially significant sites on both continents began right around 1050 A.D., but as yet no similar detailed information exists for the far lesser known native interests of the Cahokia peoples or other native North Americans, due mainly to their lack of written or even ideographic remains. Was this line of longitude the prehistoric American equivalent of our own Prime (zero) Meridain that runs through Greenwich, England (and Stonehenge by the way!) by which all modern, global time is reckoned? Is there, in fact, some rudimentary--if critical--knowledge of events taking place in their skies that has thus far eluded us simply because we have not yet searched for it, based primarily on an erroneous assumption that if we do not possess such knowledge then they could not have discerned and recorded it either? We do know, after all, that the Mayan calendar system was far more exact and accurate than the one created for our own use. Why then was it so critical for their lives?
And like our own prime meridian, would it not be too far-fetched to believe that Mayan astronomer/kings over a wide area chose to build their key calendric marking sites on an invisible line of longitude in order to synchronize their highly sophisticated and extremely accurate annual calendars. What then, might this say about the building of another major site two thousand miles to the north across a major body of water (although the Mississippi River flows down to the Gulf of Mexico almost exactly along ninety degrees west) and the possible contacts between such distant cultures. Surely, we have only just begun to properly inquire about the pre-Columbian contact capabilities of our native North American peoples, whether it be in Chaco Canyon or at Cahokia with other advanced cultures to the South.
Incidentally, the discovery of a potentially significant line of longitude for the purposes of constructing important ceremonial sites with apparent celestial observational import is not a new thing. Stephen Lekson has identified the so-called "Chaco Meridian" for a line at 107 degrees west longitude as the line upon which several important eleventh century sites (there's that date range again!), including ones at Chaco Canyon and Salmon Ruins to the north, are constructed. Extending this line to the south he has found other important sites as far away as northern Mexico on the same line. However, if he would extend his line farther north, which I am not certain he has, he would also find the enigmatic (and most assuredly astronomically oriented) site of Medicine Wheel, Wyoming lying on this same degree of longitude--107.
NOTE: Obviously the assignment of specific numbers to lines of longitude is a relatively modern, Indo-European act. However, any sophisticated mathematical system based upon solar and lunar movements within a sphere--such as the Maya and other ancients possessed--would have easily discovered the necessity for such a measuring tool as properly dividing a cirlce or spheroid into some form of invisible lines to mark time passing, especially for annual calendars accurate to within seconds. Latitude measurements, as is well known, would have been easier calculations for them by repeatable observations of the precessual movement of stars along the horizon and the sun's ecliptic passing through its annual cycle as recorded by equinoxes and solstices. Longitude, however, requires fixed points on the landscape for accurate measurement, or else incredibly accurate, movable clocks, which Europeans did not possess until the 18th Cent.
Will we ever be able to decipher or fully appreciate the astronomical calculation powers of these ancient peoples? Perhaps, not; but they have certainly left us many tantalizing and perhaps obvious clues. We need to begin asking more relevant questions, I believe. One need only stare at the hitching post of the sun in Machu Picchu; or stand in the late afternoon shadow of the perfectly symmetrical pyramid at Chichen Itza; or witness a solstice sundown at Tulum; or gaze across the endless flat vista from atop Monk's Mound at Cahokia; or track a summer sunrise at Chaco Canyon, to be all but overwhelmed at the amazing conceptual as well as constructional abilities of these stone age peoples. Were they possibly smarter than us (relatively speaking, of course)? That is one question that becomes increasingly difficult for this writer to ignore after over forty years of trying to live inside the heads of these highly competent--at the very least--and amazingly skilled ancient peoples. They have led us into the uncertain futures we all now stare at through our own somewhat hazy and imperfect mirrors of time and space. Were they able to comprehend what their own time mirrors revealed to them in ways we cannot yet see, or even imagine, for ourselves? Are we missing something important in not yet attempting to integrate their astounding knowledge of their own times into some larger, more comprehensive, body of knowledge about our distant pasts? Perhaps, it is time to look deeper into what they might be trying to reveal to us through these many diverse and remarkable stone structures they gave us as their enduring legacy.
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