Mayan Solar Observations Confirmed by Scientists

May 1, 2002

Copan Ruins, Honduras, May 01, 2002 (EFE via COMTEX) — Honduran scientists have replicated observations of the sun’s movements that the ancient Mayas made centuries ago from the ceremonial plaza at Copan, the ruins of an ancient city in western Honduras.

The discoveries, especially the notations made Tuesday, reaffirm once again that the Mayas, whose civilization reached its peak between 250 and 900 A.D., were great astronomers

The earth’s position relative to the sun accounts for twice-yearly solstices, equinoxes and zeniths (when the sun is directly above a point of reference), and determines the solar alignments of different stelae (inscribed, upright stone slabs), altars and other structures in Copan’s main plaza, patterns whose meaning has yet to be fully deciphered.

The ceremonial center, now dubbed Plaza of the Sun, has been accorded new significance on the heels of discoveries made by astronomer Maria Cristina Pineda and archeologists Vito Veliz and Ricardo Agurcia and announced March 14.

The scientists discovered that those alignments and observation points on the plaza confirm the measurements that gave rise to that ancient civilization’s famed calendar.

The sun reached its zenith above Copan on Tuesday between 11:45 and 11:54 a.m. (1745 and 1754 GMT), a period during which, seconds apart because of placement, the monuments on the main plaza stopped casting a shadow.

At 6:00 a.m. (1200 GMT) the rising sun traced three spectacular alignments, as EFE verified.

At sunset, the celestial body’s last rays also link a series of distant structures, the scientists noted.

Pineda, director of the Suyapa Central American Astronomical Observatory at Honduras’ National Autonomous University (UNAH), told EFE that the relationships to the sun that the Mayas established could have “many meanings,” such as describing sowing-harvesting cycles and links among rulers.

The equinoxes, zeniths and solstices also mark the two periods of the Maya calendar: the 260-day Tzolkin and 105-day Haab.

According to Veliz, former director of the Honduran Anthropology and History Institute and professor of “astro-archeology” at UNAH, the Plaza of the Sun was “a ceremonial space where astronomical observations were a means of interrelating rulers and subjects.”

Maya rulers were theocrats, that is, they wielded both political and religious power, and that their civilization stretched throughout Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador, Veliz noted.

The solar observations show “the superior level reached by Mayan culture throughout the area and especially at Copan,” Copan Archeological Park administrator Oscar Cruz told EFE.

“Many believe that Copan was the Mayas’ scientific center, and this is borne out by the (recent) solar observations,” he said.

“The Mayas were long said to be great astronomers, but we had not been able to document that till now,” Pineda said, noting that the earliest attempts date back to the 19th century.

Early in the 20th century, an American, Sylvanus Morley, observed that the sun lined up two stelae twice a year, on April 12 and Sept. 12.

Morley theorized that the alignment of the stelae, which are outside the Copan archeological park itself, seven kilometers (some four miles) apart, was linked to agricultural cycles, Veliz told EFE.

Scientists from the Honduran Science and Technology Council recorded the Plaza of the Sun phenomena on video and via satellite positioning systems in an effort to spark further research and attract international funding.

By Luis Alfredo Martinez