How Colonialism Destroyed Mayan Astronomy (and My Own Love of Science)

A couple years ago I started using Google Earth to peek at different parts of the world.  Being undocumented means I can’t step foot outside the U.S. or I wouldn’t be allowed to return.  Of course I looked at my home country neighborhoods at first and became nostalgic. Much of the city is in disrepair, with unpaved roads and squalor. But I could feel the positive vibes of active street dwellers. Then I looked at the next places on my list of dreams: Machu Picchu, the Great Pyramid of Giza, and the Mayan ruins, all being visited by mostly white tourists of course. I started thinking about how modern Western society simultaneously fetishizes the achievements of great indigenous civilizations of the past while erasing their descendants’ access to science today.

Growing up I had a complicated relationship to science.  From participating in robotics programs where nobody looked like me, to being segregated from my brown peers through Advanced Placement classes, and only being taught about white male scientists; science had me, an illegal alien, alienated. I started college studying physical sciences with the hopes of contributing to space exploration, yet being undocumented meant my degree would be useless. But I am far from being an outlier – our communities of color, which have a rich history of pursuing science, are being denied access to science through a myriad of systemic obstacles.

My grandma’s house in Lima where I grew up until the age of 7. Google Earth.

Who gets to reach for the stars?

The modern practice of science has been painted as almost exclusively Western. We are taught about the groundbreaking European scientists of the previous centuries without any acknowledgement of how colonialism and slavery helped Europe and the U.S. create resource-rich environments that allowed science to prosper. The West portrays the future of humanity in the hands of white saviors, who are the first to travel the universe through black holes (Interstellar) and terraform other planets (The Martian). While I appreciate these visionary films, they are also the modern embodiment of “The White Man’s Burden” where all of humanity relies on heroic white males, whiteness righteously imposing its idea of what civilization ought to look like across the universe. Not only is history whitewashed through films like Gods and Kings, where ancient Egyptians are played by white people, but now so is our future?  I am inclined to believe that the first interstellar travellers won’t be white (thank you Octavia Butler).  

But science is a practice of cultures across the world. The Mayans developed mathematics, astronomy, and calendars so precise they still accurately predict solar eclipses in our lifetime. They had a complete phonetic writing system, observatories, schools and astronomers as ingenious as Copernicus, but 500 years earlier [1]. In many areas of scientific work they were light years ahead of Europe: they independently discovered the concept of zero around 350 A.D., centuries before it would make its way to Medieval Europe, and their astronomical calendars used interlocking calendars that kept time more accurately than our modern-day clocks.

However, colonization destroyed this history. Mayans were forbidden from speaking their native language, partaking in their native religious rituals, and made to serve the Spanish through perpetual forced labor. In the 16th century bishop Diego de Landa burned perhaps thousands of books during the Spanish inquisition [2]This took away one of the most precious gifts any people could have: their own history. What other scientific insights were destroyed in the wake of the conquistadors?

Figure depicting a Mayan astronomer. Madrid codex.

At the Crossroads of Science and Colonialism

The oppressive legacies of colonialism remain. The United States and puppet Latin American governments have allied to repress popular movements throughout the 20th & 21st centuries. One of the most significant being America’s spearheading of Central American wars during the 1980s [3]. The former lands of the Mayan civilization are now one of the most significant exporters of immigrants, who are fleeing violence the US government perpetrated. Science doesn’t even have a backseat when people are displaced and forced to figure out how to survive the day to day.

And these systemic injustices impact all people of color and their unique encounters with American imperialism. There are more black men in prison and jail, or on probation and parole, than were enslaved in 1850 [4]. Families are still being broken up and shipped across the world, against their will, through deportations. Native Americans are still fighting to protect their sacred lands from being stolen and stripped for profit. The centuries long crime of colonization is being perpetuated to the same effect under different names.  Conversations around communities’ access to science and technology cannot be had without a serious reckoning with these broader colonial injustices.

We live in an age when science has allowed humans to explore those heavens which all of our ancestors thought were the realms of the Gods, yet some of us cannot travel our own home planet freely anymore. The Mayan civilization that still leaves scientists and tourists in awe is still here in some sense. Their descendants cultivate our food, maintain our lawns, clean the buildings we walk through – basically keep American cities running, but not by choice. They ought to be seen and acknowledged for their full human potential. To wonder, to learn the cosmos, to build their own future. To truly celebrate these civilizations’ greatness is to see them as more than just relics of a far past. But to shape the world into one where we can all reimagine ourselves as the stargazers, mathematicians, and scientists that we have always known ourselves to be.

[1] Discovering Discovery: Chich’en Itza, the Dresden Codex Venus Table and 10th Century Mayan Astronomical Innovation. Aldana, Gerardo. 2016.
[2]  Lost Cities of North & Central America. Hatcher Childress, David. 1992. p. 186.
[3] “How U.S. Advisers Run the War in El Salvador.” The Philadelphia Inquirer. Norland, Rod. 1983.
[4] The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. Alexander, Michelle. 2010.

Wil’ Prada is an undocumented filmmaker and astronomy enthusiast. You can follow him on instagram: @wilwill51