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    Re: Development of celestial navigation by the ancient Maya
    From: Frank Reed
    Date: 2013 May 20, 12:04 -0700

    A short review:

    The author starts his essay/paper on "The Little Known Scientific Accomplishments of the Seafaring Chontal Maya from Northern Yucatan" with a rather bold claim about their navigation. He says, "Their accomplishments in mathematics and astronomy also enabled the Chontal Maya to develop a sophisticated method of celestial navigation for their overseas voyages." From a claim like that, you might expect two things in the text that follows: 1) actual EVIDENCE of navigation by celestial means, and 2) some degree of "sophistication" in the techniques described. As it turns out, we get neither.

    His section on "celestial navigation" begins on page 25. There are several long paragraphs that make broad generalizations with no real content in them. Then he gets down to specifics and contends that the Maya could not have used Polaris writing, "A similar use of the North Star for navigation would have been unworkable for the Maya because of their more southern location. The already weak Polaris would have been much lower on the horizon and more difficult to see with the naked eye because the light from the star must pass through more of the earth s hazy atmosphere". Really?? Let's see now, the northern coast of the Yucatan is at latitude 20 North. In about 800 AD, Polaris was considerably further from the North Celestial Pole, and Polaris and Kochab would have been more like bookends around the NCP. Polaris would have ranged in altitude in Yucatan from about 13 to 27 degrees. Is that too low? We can't move Polaris around very easily, but we can easily observe circumpolar stars of nearly identical brightness. In the Big Dipper, Mizar is a bit fainter than Polaris, while Alkaid is a bit brighter. Both are plainly visible at altitudes down to 13 degrees and lower. We can easily test this, as can any casual observer of the northern sky. And of course, Kochab is nearly the same brightness as Polaris, and when Polaris is low (for a 9th century Yucatan observer), Kochab is high, providing a convenient and obvious alternative. So here we are at square one in the author's theory, and it's already falling flat on its face.

    The author throws around astronomical terminology in a confused fashion. For example he suggests that some undeciphered symbols "record [the stars] angular declination in relation to their azimuth position on a particular date". This sounds like astronomy but it is also an "undecipherable" use of symbols.

    Very little of the rest is worthy of comment. There's no "sophisticated" method of "celestial navigation" here. I don't, in any way, rule out hir general thesis that there may have been seaborne trade between the Maya and native Americans living in Florida, Cuba, and other points in this region. It's unlikely, un-necessary from the perpective of putative cultural similarities, and there's little evidence for it. This author is merely speculating, and he's doing so from a rather low base of knowledge. His introduction of celestial navigation is little more than a diversion --a sleight-of-hand trick.

    Later in the "celestial" section, he writes, "However, the Maya system of celestial navigation would not have followed the European model which obtained a latitude/longitude line of position (LOP) computed from the observed celestial body's sidereal angle with the horizon." Of course, what he describes as the "European model" of a "line of position" dates from an extremely modern period in navigation. It's an apples and oranges comparison. As for measuring a celestial body's "sidereal angle with the horizon", it's another example of verbal obfuscation --the word "sidereal" adds nothing. If I throw around some astronomical terminology, maybe the historians will think I know what I'm talking about in the subject of astronomy. Meanwhile, if I throw around some historical jargon, maybe the astronomers will think I know what I'm talking about in the subject of history. This is the curse of inter-disciplinary studies: you can con both sides of the room at once.

    Finally, I would add that the author's list of references consists almost entirely of popular works in Mayan studies. He lists popular books by Linda Schele and Michael Coe that you can buy at any Borders bookstore (use your time machine). I've got half the books he lists sitting on my own bookshelves for general historical reading. In one case, he writes, "The mathematical tables in these early European almanacs contained many errors as they were based on the error-filled Almagest of Claudius Ptolemy (circa AD 150), and there is every indication that the mathematical data contained in the Maya codices was probably more accurate (Brown 1949:74-78)." Wait... Brown? Brown from 1949?! He is citing "The Story of Maps" as an authoritative source on the Maya. Don't get me wrong; it's an interesting book, but it's a lightweight popularization, and it's well-known that it includes many legendary accounts. No one would make the mistake of counting it as a work of scholarly research. Maya studies were in their infancy in 1949, and tall tales of "Mayan astronomers" were at their peak in the middle of the twentieth century. This is long before the Maya hieroglyphs were deciphered. We can read many of the historical Maya texts now. They were not "poet astronomers" studying the stars in harmony with Nature, as some mid-century fantasies told it. --They were, rather, a society of traditional agrarian chiefdoms led by warrior-kings vying for territory, much like their counterparts in other parts of the world, and dominated by a religion founded on regular blood sacrifice.

    So what we have here is just another amateur with a marginal pet theory who is using the "form" of academic publishing to publicize his muddled ideas. Celestial navigation is a highly specialized subject with an opaque jargon, and it will continue to attract abuse in this way. Few people can claim even minimal expertise in this material, and it's easy to convince non-experts that fluency in jargon implies knowledge. It's not a pretty sight.

    -FER

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