The march of stone, bronze and iron may be a useful yardstick

Maya achievements in art, writing, architeture, astronomy, and mathematics rivaled those of ancient Egypt or Classical Europe. Mathematicians invented the concept of zero and place-system numerals – discoveries that eluded Greece and Rome… This enabled them to reckon the solar year more accurately than the Julian calendar used by Europe until 1582; they refined the average length of a lunar month to within 24 seconds of the figure determined by atomic clocks, and their extraordinary calculation for the synodical period of Venus was out by a mere 14 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 teleological march of stone, bronze and iron means little in the Americas. It may be a useful yardstick for calibrating Europe’s past, but it’s useless for taking measure of the Maya – worse than useless, because, like all flawed premises, it blocks true understanding.

… Their astronomical discoveries, for example, were made without telescopes of any kind, but they had the theory, the record keeping, and the perseverence to refine naked-eye sightings in the crucible of time.

To suppost 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… allowed large populations to survive in jungle, an achievement equaled only by the Khmer in Cambodia somewhat later. 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 iridescent quetzal plumes – in the illuminations of their books, and the painted roof combs of their buildings…

Only in recent years have scholars come close to decipherment of Maya writing, and they now know that it 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 16th 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?

– ‘Stolen Continents: Conquest and Resistance in the Americas’ by Ronald Wright, p. 50-51