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Ancient Astronomy in the Americas
Practical Origins Ancient Americans were farmers and needed to know the best time for planting and harvesting. With farming came a practical need for a calendar. As civilization developed, deeper meanings were attached to astronomical phenomenon. An overall trend: the more settled a culture became, the more religious meanings became attached to the sky.
Some Quick History People crossed from Asia into Alaska via the now sunken Bering Land Bridge in about (YEAR). Following open areas free of ice people migrated South into the continent. First permanent settlements in about (YEAR). Except for the Maya civilization, no Ancient Americans ever developed writing. Most information is based on educated guesses and second-hand European sources.
Ancient Astronomy in Ohio
Moundbuilders (1000BC-500AD) A collective name given to many Indian groups between 1000BC and 1500AD. By the time of European colonists, the Moundbuilders were history. Many mounds were for burial. Some may have been related to astronomy.
The Great Serpent Mound Located in Adams County, Ohio. Built by the Adena (YEARS) At over 3 feet tall, 20 feet wide, and 1,370 feet long, it is the world's largest effigy mound. No burials, its purpose remains a mystery. Time of construction is unknown.
From the Air
An Astronomical Explanation? Do the head and coils point toward the sunrises/sets on solstices and equinoxes? Does the serpent represent Draco? Can lunar movements be found within the coils?
The Octagon Located in Newark, OH, now incorporated into a golf course. Built by the Hopewell Culture (200BC- 500AD) In the 1980s during a search for solar alignments, several Lunar alignments were discovered (no solar ones though).
Evidence of Advanced Observing The main axis, connecting the octagon and circle, points to the Northernmost moon rise in the 18.6 year lunar cycle. Four other sides point to the maximum southern rise, minimum northern rise, maximum northern set, and minimum southern set. A similar Hopewell structure, the High Bank Earthworks in Chillicothe, also exhibit these same alignments.
Newark (left) and Chillicothe (right)
Is There More? Newark and Chilicothe are very similar sites about 55 miles apart. The common design in obvious. In Newark, traces of parallel Earth banks about 200 feet apart, leading 6 miles in the direction of Chillicothe were first surveyed in With aerial photography, traces of this supposed road are visible at four additional sites, which are in direct line between Newark and Chillicothe.
The “Great Hopewell Road”
Fort Ancient People ( ) Descendants of the Moundbuilders Named for a hilltop site occupied by the tribe. In reality, this site, no longer considered a fort, was probably built by the Moundbuilders. Far more agriculturally orentated than their Moundbuilder ancestors. With agriculture comes a need for accurate timekeeping.
Sunwatch Village Located in Dayton. Originally intended to be a salvage excavation. Now, the site is permanantely preserved. Now restored. The village centers around tall posts in the ground. Using line of sight, these posts mark the solstices and equinoxes. Special houses are also in these sight lines.
The Reconstructed Village
Cahokia Located in the St. Louis area. Flourished from about AD. Monk's Mound (left) is a pyramid-like structure and is the largest man made mound in N. America with a 1,037' x 790' base (Egypt's Great Pyramid is a 754' square).
“Woodhenge” Located to the West of Monk's Mound. Consisted of a circle of posts used to make line of sight astronomical alignments. There were as many as five henges, with posts ranging from as few as 12 to as many as 60. Original posts long gone, holes averaging 4 feet deep and 2 feet wide were the evidence the henge existed. The 48 post version, 410 feet in diameter, has been reconstructed. Solstices and Equinoxes were marked. Other alignments are unknown.
The Pueblo (1200AD-????) A collective name applied to many individual tribes. Lived in the Four Corners area of the Southwest. Known for their pottery and cliff side housing. Modern Indians in this area claim these people as their ancestors. Although not certain, there are believed to be links with Mesoamerican cultures.
An Ancient Pueblo Village
Chaco Canyon Occupied by the Anasazi People from about AD. Pearls and parrot feathers found here, which are thought to be represent a link to Central American groups. The strength of these ties is uncertain, ranging from trading partners to outposts of Mesoamerican civilization. Reasons for their collapse are thought to be weather related.
The Supernova Petroglyph M1, the Crab Nebula, is the remnant of a Supernova first seen on July 4, The Supernova was visible in daylight for almost three weeks, absolutely impossible to ignore. The people at Chaco Canyon may have recorded this observation in stone. Tracing back the sky, the glyph depicts the moon's location on July 5, 1054.
The Sun Dagger Rediscovered in the 1970s. Used to mark the solstices and equinoxes. Created by the interplay of light and shadow. Consists of petroglyphs on rock behind a stone slab in front with slits for sunlight. The petroglyphs are a large spiral and a small snake. The effect would last about 15 minutes. Due to shifting rocks, the effect is now altered and the site is closed to the public.
In Detail Summer Solstice: The sun shines through a slit and appears as a small point of light on the spiral. Slowly the point of light grows into a cone, which is then cut off at the top to make a dagger, which slowly moves down. Winter Solstice: The same except that two daggers bracket the spiral. Equinoxes: Long light shaft bisects the snake, another illuminated the spiral.
At the Winter Solstice
The Great Kiva
Medicine Wheels Many are located in the Western U.S. Strongly resemble henges. Spokes and rocks are thought by some to mark astronomical alignments. A complete lack of written history leaves meanings uncertain.
Quick History Many cultures in a small area. Overall trend: cultural succession. A certain culture becomes dominant, declines, and is replaced by another. As new cultures rise, they build on the legacy of the previous civilizations. In Mesoamerica, the astronomy/religion link is common. By the Spanish conquest, religion and astronomy are essentially one discipline.
The Olmecs ( BC) The foundation culture of Central America. Known as “The Rubber People” for their ballgame-more later. The tradition of pyramid temples started with the Olmecs. Known for carving giant stone heads, on which there has been much speculation. Astronomically, the development of the first calendars is their most important achievement.
Olmec Stone Head
The Ritual Ballgame Played with a heavy (WEIGHT) rubber ball, which represented the sun. The object was to keep the ball moving and get it through a stone loop high on a wall. The game could last for days because the players could not use hands or feet. Played by teams of two. The losers were often sacrificed. A potentially deeper meaning to the stone loop will be addressed later.
The Olmec Calendars The Olmecs used 2 parallel calendars. A 365 day solar calendar. As far as we know, no Mesoamrican culture used leap years. This was the everyday calendar for practical activities. A 260 day ritual calendar. The origins of this calendar remain unknown. Calendars would start at the same time, but would not re align again for 52 years. The later Maya expand greatly upon these ideas.
The Maya (600 BC-1200AD) New evidence continually pushes the Origin of Maya culture further back in time. Some Maya pyramids rival Egypt's in size. The only Mesoamerican culture to develop writing. Once thought to be a peaceful civilization ruled by astronomer-priests. Actually very militaristic. Did very detailed astronomical observations. For reasons unknown, civilization mostly collapsed by 900AD. Much speculation here.
More About the Maya The Maya believed that time was cyclical, not linear. With this idea came the belief that thew world was created, will be destroyed, and then recreated. These cycles were known as Suns. To the Maya, these suns were not random, but were clearly organized. More to follow.
Important Maya Sites
The Importance of Time Kept the Olmec 365 and 260 day calendars. Thanks to texts, we know more about the division of the calendars. Ritual calendar consisted of 20 months of 13 days each. Solar calendar was 18 months of 20 days each. The leftover 5 days were considered dangerous because the gates of the underworld were thought to open. People mostly stayed home.
The Ultimate Calendar
Religion and the Sky The Milky Way represents the road to the underworld. The Milky Way is often represented as a monster devouring the dead. This is the sarcophagus lid of Maya king Pacal.
Or is it an Astronaut on a Rocket?
The Myth of the Hero Twins A king and his twin brother like to play the ritual ballgame. Problem: they play on a court over a gateway to the underworld, which annoys the gods of death. The gods summon the king and his brother to the underworld for a game. The gods win and the brothers are killed. The king had two twin sons of his own.
Take Two The younger twins also like to play the ballgame and also annoy the gods of death. Once again, the gods summon the twins to the underworld. The twins take the challenge. This time, the gods lose. Before exiting the underworld, the twins resurrect their father and uncle. Their father becomes the sun, their uncle becomes the planet Venus.
Cosmic Brothers The Sun and Venus share a rhythm that only long observations can detect. The solar year is 365 days. The Venus Cycle (What) is 584 days. Coincidently, 8 solar years directly overlaps with 5 cycles of Venus (both are 2920 days). Both represent life triumphing over death. Rising and setting sun Venus going from visability to conjunction
Venus and the Maya Since Venus represented life triumphing over death, Venus was carefully observed. The movements of Venus often dictated policy. Venus approaching conjunction was an ominous time and the reappearance of Venus was a time of rejoicing. Conjunction signified the ballgame between the Hero Twins and gods of death. During conjunction, the Maya believed that the existence of the world was being determined.
Beyond the Century 52 years too short for long term record keeping. Maya invented the Long Count with its longer cycles to fix this. 1 day (kin) 20 days (kins) = 1 month (uinal) 18 months (uinals) = 360 days (1 tun) 20 tuns = 1 K'atun (7200 days) 20 K'atuns = 1 Ba'ak'tun (144,000 days) 1 Ba'ak'tun = 1 Sun/Great Cycle (1,872,000 days or 5,125 years)
Astronomy, the Long Count, and Doomsday? The Long Count dates to (DATE 3,114 BC) and runs out on December 21, Coincidently, on December 21, 2012, the sun will rise directly in a black void in the Milky Way. Since the Milky Way was the road to the underworld, this dark void was the actual gate. With the Hero Twins in mind, this astronomical event signifies the birth of a new sun because the Hero Twins' father exits the underworld. Remember the ballgame and the stone loop?
What this Means The Twins myth comes from the Popol Vuh. Astronomical knowledge comes from observation. At the time the Popol Vuh was being written in about 100 BC, the Winter Solstice sun rose about 30 degrees from the Void. Precession shifts apparent location a degree every 70 years. 70 years x 30 degrees = about 2100 years. The Maya must have understood Precession to calculate when the sun would rise in the void.
Astronomy in Buildings Many Maya buildings incorperate line of sight alignments. The temple group at Uaxactun (left) is designed to mark the solstices and equinoxes. Some alignments are not so obvious.
An astronomical City? Tikal, located in Guatemala, is one of the most impressive Maya sites. The 5 central temples were all built within about 40 years and exhibit possible astronomical significance. The equinoxes, Winter Solstice, and August 13 are all possible.
The Ultimate Ancient Observatory The Caracol, located in Chichen Itza, displays many subtle aignments. The main axis of the temple is toward the Northernmost rise of Venus. Windows in the building align to rises/sets of prominent stars. The solstices are discreetly included too.
The Caracol's Many Alignments
Teotihuacan (DATES) Located near Mexico City. Ran parallel to the Maya civilization, but much farther north. Famous for its pyramids. Less known for its astronomy.
A Place of Mystery Compared to other civilizations, (CITY) was short lived. Once again, no writing. Evidence of a catastrophic end. The later Aztecs believed that the gods created the universe here. The Aztecs were also responsible for naming many of the major landmarks.
The Avenue of the Dead At the time of construction, this avenue was orentated to the first helical rising of the Pleiades. This also coincides with the beginning of the rainy season. 56 other cities copy this plan.
The Aztecs ( ) The Last great Mesoamerican civilization. Inherited, then added to the traditions of the earlier cultures. Known for their particularily gruesome method of practicing human sacrifice on an industrial scale. Strong believers in astrology, which was often used in policymaking. Believed everything was predestined and that nothing happened due to chance.
Sun Centered View Unlike the Maya, the Sun was most important. Aztecs believed they were living in the 5 th and final Sun (the Maya had no limits) When the world was created, the Sun refused to move. To get it moving, the gods sacrificed themselves to it. The need for human sacrifice comes from a need to keep the sun moving. As long as the sun kept moving, the world would not end.
Aztec Raisin Bran
Moctezuma's Comet Seen in (YEAR) Now known to have been Halley's Comet. Was unpredicted by the astrologers, who were beheaded as punishment. Something unforseen like a comet was taken as a bad omen, especially for a people as fatalistic as the Aztecs.
A period Depiction
The Templo Mayor The double pyramid temple in the Aztec capital on Tenoichtitlan. A main point of sacrifice. From an observation point opposite the temple, the sun would appear to rise directly between the two pyramids. Due to precession, the alignment bacame slightly off over time. At the time of the conquest, there was a plan to completely disassemble and rebuild the temple to adjust for precession.
Quick History First traces of human settlement around (YEAR) No real powerful, long lived cultures. Instead, many overlapping, differing cultures. Despite the cultural and chronological differences, astronomy was a shared characvteristiuc to varying degrees.
Did you know... The world's oldest man made mummies are from the South American Chinchorro culture and are from about BC, at least 2000 years older than the oldest Egyptian mummy.
Now for Some Astronomy Writing was unknown in South America until the arrival of the Spanish. Without writing, there is much speculation. Basic astronomical achievements can be relatively certain.
The Nazca Lines Located in the Nazca desert in Peru. One of the driest places on earth. Lack of water and wind has allowed the lines, created by scraping away iron oxide pebbles to reveal the lighter lower soil, to remain preserved for about 1500 years without change.
Several Mysteries Astronomical significance? Religious motivation? Related to water? Proof of ancient hot air balloons? Aliens? Is this an ancient astronaut?
Possible Astronomical Significance These theories are all educated guesses, no one knows anything about the lines for sure. Some think the figures could represent constellations. Others argue that the figures and lines align with certain celestial events. The problem is that there are so many lines, it is hard not to find any alignments! A second problem is that there is no written history from the time.
Other Ideas? No one knows the lines' purpose. Religious motivation: The drawings depict gods and/or were meant for the gods to see. They could have also been mazes on which rituals were performed. A map of underground springs, which are known to exist in the area? Proof of ancient hot air balloons? Ancient alien airfield?
Ancient Hot Air Balloon Not completely crazy. A balloon was built in (YEAR) with technology/materials that would have been current at the Lines' time of construction. Potential problem: Could the ancients have thought of manned flight?
Ancient Nazca Spaceport?
The Incas Very short lived civilization. Controlled an area about the size of Ancient Egypt. The true empire only lasted about 90 years. Astronomical practices were recorded, the Sun was dominant.
The Intihuatana Stone Located in Macchu Picchu, Peru. Points at the Winter Solstice sun. Also called the “Hitching Post of the Sun” because, at mid day on the equinoxes, the pillar casts no shadow.
A Threatened Site Macchu Picchu, as a whole, is Peru's most visited tourist site. Over 400,000 people visit the site annually. In the 1990s, a cable car was built to allow easier access. Economic and commercial forces threaten the sight, according to academics. In 2000, the Stone was damaged when an 1,100 pound crane fell on it during filming of...
...A Beer Commercial!
The Thirteen Towers About 2300 years old and located in Peru. Have been known of for almost 100 years. Thirteen well preserved towers are situated on a ridge and run from North to South. About 750 feet to the East and West are two areas scientists think could be observation points. From these points, the rising and setting Sun will travel from the Northernmost to Southernmost tower during the course of a year.
Coincidence or Intended?
The Temple of the Fox Located in the Chillon River Valley, North of Lima, Peru. The site was first Excavated in In 2006, an observatory marking the solstices was recognized. From carbon dating of objects at the site, the age is estimated to be 4,200 years old. This is the oldest known observatory in the Americas.
The Amazon Stonehenge Discovered in blocks in total spaced along regular intervals in a 100 foot diameter circle. Some stones are 9 feet tall. Located on a hilltop. One block is situated so that its shadow disappears as the sun rises over it.