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Historical and Cultural Entries into Astrobiology

The Project

The first step of our project, which was sponsored by the Wisconsin Space Grant Consortium, was to learn about the impressive astronomical achievements of the ancient culture of Maya. To gain expertise I have taken the National Science Foundation’s Chautauqua short course for college teachers, "Archaeoastronomy in the Maya Ruins of Palenque / Bonampak / Yaxchilan / La Venta Park", in June 12-18, 2002, in Mexico.

The Chautauqua Course

The course was taught by Dr. Ed Barnhart of the Mayan Exploration Center . He is one of the most prominent experts on Maya archaeoastronomy, hieroglyphics, iconography, and was in charge of an archaeological survey that discovered over 1000 new structures in the ruins of Palenque. There were about 20 college professors who took the course. Their fields ranged from physics, chemistry and math, to art, anthropology and philosophy. This mixture of fields ensured a lively input and participation, as well as exchange of ideas on incorporation of the material we learned into our teaching.
The course covered the observational methods developed by the Maya and what astronomy meant to them as people. We started with study of Palenque ruins in Chiapas, Mexico. We investigated the archaeoastronomical evidence, such as architectural forms and various hieroglyphic texts. We became familiar with its famous king, Lord Pakal, who used astronomy to validate his right to the throne. Lord Kan Balam, who was Pakal's son, was the first king to incorporate Jupiter and Saturn into the Maya calendar. We visited also Bonampak and Yaxchilan, the two of Palenque's allied cities. Finally, we visited La Venta Park, where we learned about the Olmec civilization. At the last seminar we discussed what we have learned and were also given the resource packet for the course. This is the most useful material, which can be used as the starting point for developing teaching modules. The resource packet has the sections on Sun, Moon, Venus, Mercury, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, with sections on their glyph representations and translations, on various astronomical calculations Maya's performed, deities, creation mythology and animal associations as related to the sun and planets, archaeological maps of the areas we visited, and much information on Maya's famous calendar.


A. Aveni, “Stairways to the Stars, Skywatching in Three Great Ancient Cultures”, J. Wiley & Sons, New York, 1997.
A. F. Aveni, “Skywatchers”, University of Texas Press, Austin, 2001.
P. G. Bahn, “The Atlas of World Archaeology”, Checkmark Books, New York, 2000.
M. D. Coe and M. Van Stone, “Reading the Maya Glyphs”, Thames and Hudson, 2001.
G. Díaz and A. Rogers, “The Codex Borgia, A Full-Color Restoration of the Ancient Mexican Manuscript”, Dover Publ. Inc., New York, 1993.
A. G. Gilbert an M. M. Cotterell, “The Mayan Prophecies, Unlocking the Secrets of a Lost Civilization”, Element, Rockport, Massachusetts, 1995.
P. D. Harrrison, “The Lords of Tikal, Rulers of An Ancient Maya City”, Thames and Hudson, Inc., New York, 2000.
G. S. Hawkins, “Stonehenge Decoded”, Doubleday& Co., Garden City, New York, 1965.
G. Ifrah, “The Universal History of Numbers, From Prehistory to the Invention of the Computer”, J. Wiley& Sons, New York, 2000.
M. Miller and K. Taube, “The Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and Maya, An Illustrated Dictionary”, Thames and Hudson Inc., New York, 1997.
J. Montgomery, “Tikal, The Ancient Maya Capital, An Illustrated History”, Hippocrene Books, Inc., New York, 2001.
“Popol Vuh, The Definitive Edition of the Mayan Book of the Dawn of Life and the Glories of Gods and Kings”, Translated by D. Tedlock, Touchstone Book, Simon& Schuster, New York, 1996.
“Route of the Mayas”, Knopf Guides, Alfred A. Knopf, Publ., New York, 1999.
R. J. Sharer, “The Ancient Maya”, Fifth Edition, Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1994.
K. Taube, “Aztec and Maya Myths”, The University of Texas, Austin, 1997.

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