Ancient Details about the Pre-Columbian World
Ancient Details about the Pre-Columbian World

Ancient Details about the Pre-Columbian World

Steve - November 14, 2018

Ancient Details about the Pre-Columbian World
North-west view of El Castillo, in Chichén Itzá, Mexico. Wikimedia Commons.

3. The Temple of Kukulcan in the ancient Maya city of Chichén Itzá reflects sunlight during the equinoxes to create the illusion of a feathered serpent wriggling its way to the ground

Chichén Itzá was a pre-Columbian Maya city, located in the modern-day Yucatán state of Mexico and constructed in its present form between 750-90 CE; serving as one of the largest Maya cities throughout the Late Classic, Terminal Classic, and early Post-classic periods of the civilization’s history, at the heart of the ancient settlement is the iconic Temple of Kukulcan (also known as El Castillo).

Built between the 8th and 12th centuries, with the foundational structure estimated to date from 600-800 CE and the final contributions added around 900-1000CE, the Temple of Kukulcan acted as a religious center for the worship of the Maya god Kukulkan: the Feathered Serpent and a close relation to the prominent Aztec god of Quetzalcoatl. Designed in the traditional style of a step-pyramid, consisting of a series of square terraces situated along four equal sloped triangular sides, the Temple of Kukulcan measures 79 feet in height, with an additional 20 feet for the temple situated atop, and 181 feet in width; each side, itself decorated in sculptures of the deified plumed serpent, possesses 91 steps, which when including the final step adorning the edifice’s summit amounts to 365, symbolically reflecting the number of days in a year according to the Maya calendar.

Ingeniously incorporating the Mayas advanced astronomical knowledge and interest, the Temple of Kukulcan was designed in such a manner that in the days surrounding the spring and fall equinoxes the setting sun casts a very particular shadow around the complex: the illusion of a feathered serpent crawling down the pyramid and slithering to the ground; given the nature of the temple complex, and the known role of Kukulcan in the Maya religious tradition, this purposeful design was likely incorporated into religious ceremonies at Chichén Itzá during this solar events.

Ancient Details about the Pre-Columbian World
A solid rubber ball used (or similar to those used) in Mesoamerican ballgames (c. 300 BCE-250 CE). Wikimedia Commons.

2. The ancient Maya are believed to have been the first discoverers of vulcanization, doing so thousands of years prior to the alleged “discovery” and commercialization of the process by Charles Goodyear

Vulcanization – the chemical process by which rubber is combined with other materials in order to convert it into a more durable material – is an important aspect of the modern commercial production of rubber in everyday products. Traditionally credited to legendary American engineer Charles Goodyear, who received his patent in 1843 for the chemical process behind the manufacture of pliable rubber – in which latex from the Brazilian rubber tree is heated with sulfur to increase elasticity and durability – modern historical discoveries have uncovered that the ancient Maya actually beat Goodyear to this practice by over 3,000 years.

Acquiring rubber from the sap of trees native to Maya-populated regions, it is believed that the discovery originated, as with many early inventions, by mistake, most likely first noticed during a religious ritual combining aspects of the rubber tree and morning-glory plants. By varying the number of additional materials added to raw tree rubber, these earliest of chemical engineers were able to create a vast range of rubber-based durable products including water-resistant cloth, glue, and rubber balls used in the aforementioned competitive sport; by mixing equal amounts of latex and morning-glory juice rubber balls could be produced with bouncy qualities, whilst a 3:1 ratio produced a durable material suitable for footwear.

Whilst ultimately uncertain in scope, there is a “a compelling case that ancient Mesoamerican peoples were the first polymer scientists, exerting substantial control over the mechanical properties of rubber for various applications”; it should be noted that whilst no ancient rubber footwear has been unearthed at Mesoamerican archaeological sites to date, accounts of Spanish conquistadors undeniably, and previously inexplicably, detail their existence among indigenous people. Furthermore, an array of complimentary rubber artifacts have been recovered from archaeological sites across former Maya territory, including bands, statues, and adhesives, in addition to rubber balls dating from as far back at 1600 BCE; it has been estimated that “a large rubber industry in the region” existed prior to Spanish arrival in the Americas, with as many as 16,000 rubber balls produced per year and transported to the Maya capital of Tikal as part of tributary payments.

Ancient Details about the Pre-Columbian World
Mayan Zodiac Circle. Wikimedia Commons.

1. The ancient Maya were intensely aware of the cosmic rotation of the celestial bodies, accordingly creating two separate calendar systems: the Calendar Round and Long Count

An industrious and scientifically curious people, the ancient Maya also were intensely spiritual; with the focus of this religiosity frequently directed towards the celestial heavens, it is perhaps unsurprising that the Maya people developed an early understanding of the cosmos. Capable of predicting solar eclipses, with such events believed to symbolize great religious significance, the Maya concurrently used astrological cycles to determine suitable harvesting patterns and, perhaps most famously if not properly understood, enshrined their knowledge of these celestial transitions into two calendar systems: the Calendar Round and the Long Count.

The Calendar Round was comprised of two overlapping annual cycles: a 260-day “sacred year” and a 365-day “secular year”. An immensely cumbersome method, even for a prototype, under the Calendar Round each day was ascribed four separate labels: a day number and day name in the sacred calendar, and a day number and month name in the secular calendar. Every 18,980 days – the first common mathematical integer of 260 and 365 – or 52 solar years, counted as a single Calendar Round, after which the dates would reset back to the beginning for another lap.

Due to the inefficiency of the Calendar Round, measuring time in an infinite loop resetting every 52 solar years rather than as part of a definitive linear chronology, the identification of specific timelines and events was extremely complicated, if not impossible across a prolonged period of time; consequently, the Long Count was devised in approximately 236 BCE as an improved alternative system. Under the Long Count each day was identified by counting forward from a predetermined base date, identified by modern historians as either August 11 or August 13, 3114 BCE; as a method of shorthand calculation, days were grouped into carefully delineated sets: a baktun was 144,000 days, a k’atun was 7,200 days, a tun was 360 days, a winal was 20 days, and a kin was 1 day. Although retaining the same fundamental flaw as the Calendar Round, having an ultimate final date within the system, under the Long Count, as the name would suggest, each “Grand Cycle” was far larger, equal to 13 baktuns or 5,139 solar years; consequently, as of time of writing we are just under 7 years from the terminus of the first Grand Cycle of the Maya Calendar.


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