UCSB Chican@ studies professor Gerardo Aldana discovered a new translation to a single Mayan verb, redefining modern understandings of Mayan astronomical texts and the manner in which Mayan hieroglyphs are interpreted.
Aldana refutes knowledge about the Mayan calendar such as the longstanding myth of the Mayan’s prediction of global destruction in 2012, which researchers have gleaned from the codex using the largely accepted translation. Aldana’s book Tying Headbands or Venus Appearing explains how the verb “k’al,” prevalent in the Venus Pages of the 13th century Mayan Dresden Codex manuscript, has a more significant meaning than the one ascribed to it by its accepted translation.
According to Aldana, translators previously recognized the verb as a type of grammatical “binding.” However, Aldana took the nature of Mayan rituals and beliefs about astronomy into consideration to expand the word into a more abstract concept.
Aldana said the culture’s belief that time is cyclical led him to infer that the verb refers to a “binding” of time periods in a circular path.
“I realized that both definitions are getting at the same thing; you just have to shift your understanding of the actual meaning behind the word,” Aldana said. “It now allows us to go back to these other texts that have been ambiguous and make more sense of it all. They are telling something of how they think of time periods. It’s really much broader [than previously thought] and provides a window to how Mesoamerican scribes thought of time and space.”
With the new translation, Aldana also disproves the accuracy of the Mayan calendar as it was previously interpreted, meaning that those prophesying an impending apocalypse no longer have bases for the claim. Although previous translation attempts decoded each word individually, Aldana said he interpreted the hieroglyphs in the context of the science behind them and focused on the meaning of the manuscript as a whole.
“We’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out the nuts and bolts; now we are getting to the point where we are trying to figure out what these texts actually mean,” Aldana said. “There’s still a lot of room for the field to grow. It’s really forcing us to become more interdisciplinary in reading these texts.”
With a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from UC Irvine and a Ph.D. in the history of science from Harvard, Aldana said the study of Mayan science appeals to him because of its isolation from accepted Western scientific ideas.
“I felt there was an opportunity here,” Aldana said. “Ancient Mesoamerica developed independently from the rest of the world. What they perceive[d] is completely different than our perspective on science. Maya is the only culture completely uninfluenced by the rest of the world for much of its history.”