The text of this post is an excerpt from the book ‘Stolen continents: conquest and resistance in the Americas’ by Ronald Wright, p50-51.
Mathematicians invented the concept of zero and place-system numerals – discoveries that eluded Greece and Rome – and with these intellectual tools the Maya designed a calendar that could measure time precisely over millions, even billions of years. This enabled them to reckon the solar year more accurately than the Julian calendar that was used in Europe until 1582; they refined the length of an average lunar month to within twenty-four seconds of the figure determined by atomic clocks, and their extraordinary calculation for the synodical period of Venus was out by a mere fourteen seconds per year.
Such triumphs are all the more remarkable when one considers that the Classic Maya were technically in the Stone Age. They had little or no bronze, certainly no iron, and made no practical use of the wheel, though they knew its principle. [The Americas lacked beasts of burden such as oxen or horses that would have made wheeled carts worthwhile.] To Europeans, who think civilization and hard technology are much the same thing, this poses a paradox.
The problem lies in our definition of technology. If we think of it merely as gadgetry, the Maya were far behind. If we think of it as the totality of systems devised by a civilization – not only their tools but their social structure, their use of intellect, their familiarity with plants and animals, weather and the environment, their ability to pass down knowledge and put it to work – then we can see how they overcame a lack of hardware. Their astronomical discoveries, for example, were made without telescopes of any kind, but they had the mathematical theory, the record keeping, and the perseverance to refine naked-eye sightings in the crucible of time.
To support cities such as Tikal, the Maya developed a unique form of intensive agriculture in what are now forbidding swamps. A network of canals and raised fields (similar to the Aztec floating gardens) allowed large populations to thrive. The luxuriance of the rainforest became reflected in the leafy baroque of Maya sculpture, in the fantastic regalia of their kings – jade and jaguar skin and irridescent quetzal plumes – in the illuminations of their books, and the painted roof combs of their buildings.
We now know that Maya writing was a fully developed system combining phonetics and ideographs, as in Egyptian or Chinese. There was much the Maya might have taught us, but from the thousands of their ancient books that could have been read in the sixteenth century, only three survived the Spanish bonfires. One contains the astonishing astronomical data on Venus and other planets. Who can say what has been lost?