Because of recent hype surrounding the "end" of the Mayan calendar it is nearly impossible to find an objective quantitative assessment of the accuracy and sophistication of Mayan astronomy.

Specifically, how accurate were there "ephemerides" in their time, and extended into the present? Most popular descriptions suggest that we understand enough of their models to apply them to present times, but could we really use them to, say, predict the time of a sunrise or the right ascension of a planet. If so, with what accuracy?


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An comprehensive source on this issue is Brickers' Astronomy in the Maya Codices. They meticulously correlated Mayan calendar with the Western one, and systematically analyzed their Venus, Mars and eclipse tables. It turned out that a table dated to 11-12th century predicted a solar eclipse in 1991 within a day of actual occurence. Another measure of accuracy is given by comparing Mayan values to Ptolemy's and the modern ones, and one can see that they did essentially as well as Ptolemy:

Parameter (days) | Maya | Ptolemy | Modern

Lunar (synodic) month | 29.53086 | 29.53337 | 29.53059

Synodic period of Venus | 583.92027 | 583.94267 | 583.93

Synodic period of Mars | 780 | 779.94 | 779.94

Solar (tropical) year | 365.242 | 365.24667 | 365.24198

Mayan observations were performed with a naked eye assisted by a pair of crossed sticks, and they did not have any kind of angular coordinates to record and predict positional data such as found in ephemerides. All the tabulated data in the surviving codices is on cycles, time periods between recurring astronomical events, solstices and equinoxes, zenial passages, eclipses, risings and settings, stations and so on, and it is about this data that the accuracy claims are made. For instance, the prediction error on eclipses and Venus's revolutions is under one day in 6000 years. Apparently, they even noticed a regularity in the motion of Mars that went unnoticed until recently found in the codices. Some numerical data from the codices is reviewed here.

  • $\begingroup$ What about ephemerides (positions)? And can these numbers really be compared within about a second (and why the huge discrepancy between that level of claimed accuracy and a full day's error in predicting the timing of the 1991 eclipse)? $\endgroup$
    – orome
    Commented Sep 11, 2015 at 11:34
  • $\begingroup$ @raxacoricofallapatorius See edit, Mayans did not study positions. $\endgroup$
    – Conifold
    Commented Sep 12, 2015 at 21:37

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