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Ancient Americans, masters of the skies

Written by Laurent Escobar | 27th August 2015 |


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Ancient American civilisations paid a lot of attention to what was going on up in the sky. Celestial observation was a very important activity as it helped them understand the world in which they lived.

Today, the astronomical calendar is widely known and understood, so there is no real mystery to apprehending seasons and celestial events. But before the arrival of Europeans in the Americas, this knowledge was only known to the elite: rulers and priests, who employed this knowledge to control the masses.

In order to regulate the time to plant, anticipate the rainy season, and fix the ritual celebration and seasonal events such as the first rain and the harvest, they worked hard to learn the periodic cycles of the sun, moon, stars and planets. They created myths of cosmic deities, built observatories and oriented their cities on the cardinal directions to reflect the harmony of the world and cement their leadership by linking it to a stable cosmic axis.

The legacy of their efforts is still visible today in archaeological sites throughout the continent. And as the autumn equinox is coming up soon, we thought you might like to know some of the best known sites:

Machu Picchu, Peru

The citadel of Machu Picchu features a stone called 'Intihuatana,' ('the hitching post of the sun') which has been shown to be a precise indicator of the date of both the spring and autumn equinoxes and other significant celestial periods. At midday on the equinoxes, the sun stands almost directly above the pillar, creating no shadow at all. It is said that the Incas held ceremonies at the stone at these times. There is also an Intihuatana alignment with the summer solstice (which is in December in the southern hemisphere), when at sunset the sun sinks behind 'Pumasillo' (the Puma's claw), the most sacred mountain of the western Vilcabamba range.

Easter Island, Chile

On Easter Island, there are numerous markers of astronomical alignments. During the autumn and spring equinox in Ahu Akivi, seven moai statues look out to the ocean facing the sunset. They also faced the helical setting of the constellation of Orion in 1,300 AD. The descent of this constellation may have symbolized the descent into the underworld (beneath the horizon), which is the stage represented in myths around the world at the time of the autumn equinox.

Chichen Itza, Mexico

The Mayan archaeological site of Chichen Itza, between Mérida and Cancún, is a very popular place to witness the spring equinox. The Kukulkan temple is a masterpiece, built according to precise astronomical specifications. At spring and autumn equinoxes the sun creates an undulating pattern of light on the nine terraces of the pyramid to display seven triangles of light which link up with a stone serpent head at its base. As the sun sets on the autumn equinox, the pattern created by the movement and alignment of the sun appears to be of a snake descending down the pyramid steps. During the winter solstice the sun appears to climb up the terraces of the western face until it rests momentarily directly above the pyramid on the pinnacle of the temple room that sits on top of the pyramid, before beginning its descent down the other side.

Lake Titicaca, Bolivia

At the ancient sacred city of Tiwanaku, the rays of the rising sun on the winter solstice pass through a stone entrance to hit an obelisk directly behind it. The creator god Viracocha is also carved into the center of another entrance called 'the sun gate,' on it are believed to be the instructions for interpreting a giant wall made of eleven pillars nearby as a solar calendar. When standing at the observation stone, it is said that one could have seen the sun set over each of the pillars, depending on the time of year, including at the equinoxes and solstices.

Tikal, Guatemala

On the spring equinox, the sun rises up the middle of 'The Temple of the Grand Jaguar' with its nine terraces to crown its pinnacle. In doing so, it causes the temple to cast a perfect shadow over the much smaller 'Temple of the Moon,' which has three terraces and was decorated with a wooden lintel showing the image of a royal woman. At the time of the spring equinox the sun rises from out of the underworld to defeat the darkness. The rising of the sun was very much associated with resurrection by the Mayans.

Xochicalco, Mexico

Close to the Mexican capital, this site's main claim is not connected to equinoxes nor solstices, but to the two days when the sun is at its zenith here each year, on 15 May and 28 July. The vertical north side of a 5-meter-long vertical 'chimney' down into the solar observatory, a particular underground cave, ensures that the sunlight entering the cave on the day of the zenith is precisely vertical, creating a very strong ray of sunlight. When placing your arm through the ray of light you can even see your skeleton on the cave floor (well actually it is the umbra and pre umbra of your shadow that creates this illusion), and if you stay below the ray with a coloured t-shirt the colour will expand throughout the cave, a gorgeous effect.

Urubamba Valley, Peru

In the Sacred Valley of the Andes, facing the ancient Inca ruins of Ollantaytambo, 'Cerro Pinkuylluna' is believed to have the profile of the creator god Viracocha. The formation, standing at 140 meters high, is made up of indentations that form the eyes and mouth, whilst a protruding carved rock makes his nose. Inca ruins built on top of the face are considered to represent a crown on his head. When the sun strikes the profile of Viracocha during the winter solstice, the mineral content of the mountain reflects and refracts the rays.

Teotihuacan, Mexico

Teotihuacan ('the city of the gods'), the most visited archaeological site in Mexico, is an outstanding location to witness the spring equinox. The original inhabitants erected marker stones on nearby hillsides to mark the position of the rising sun at the spring equinox as viewed from the Pyramid of the Sun. Many of the visitors at the spring equinox today dress in white and climb to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun in order to receive the special energy from the sun. Although this has no scientific support, if you really want to 'absorb' the sun's energy, try climbing it any day when the sun is at noon (closer to earth) rather than queuing up for hours on the equinox day.

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