Mesoamerican Studies On-Air: Episode 25

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025. Calculating Brilliance: An Intellectual History of Mayan Astronomy at Chich’en Itza, with Gerardo Aldana

In this episode, I sit with Gerardo Aldana to discuss his new book, Calculating Brilliance: An Intellectual History of Mayan Astronomy at Chich’en Itza. We discuss the ways in which this work humanizes the study of history, proposes new theories for how ancient people would have interacted with astronomical events, and challenges past ways of thinking about ancient Maya brilliance.

Gerardo Aldana is a professor of Chicana and Chicano Studies at the University of California Santa Barbara. His research interests include Maya hieroglyphic history, Mesoamerican art, experimental archaeology, science studies, culture theory, and indigeneity.

Book Summary:

To the modern eye, the architects at Chich’en Itza produced some of the most mysterious structures in ancient Mesoamerica. The purpose and cultural influences behind this architecture seem left to conjecture. The people who created and lived around this stunning site may seem even more mercurial.

Near the structure known today as the Great Ball Court and within the interior of the Lower Temple of the Jaguar, a mural depicts a female Mayan astronomer called K’uk’ul Ek’ Tuyilaj. Weaving together archaeology, mathematics, history, and astronomy, Calculating Brilliance brings to light the discovery by this Mayan astronomer, which is recorded in the Venus Table of the Dresden Codex. As the book demonstrates, this brilliant discovery reverberated throughout Mayan science. But it has remained obscured to modern eyes.

Jumping from the vital contributions of K’uk’ul Ek’ Tuyilaj, Gerardo Aldana y Villalobos critically reframes science in the pre-Columbian world. He reexamines the historiography of the Dresden Codex and contextualizes the Venus Table relative to other Indigenous literature. From a perspective anchored to Indigenous cosmologies and religions, Aldana y Villalobos delves into how we may understand Indigenous science and discovery—both its parallels and divergences from modern globalized perspectives of science.

Calculating Brilliance brings different intellectual threads together across time and space, from the Classic to the Postclassic, the colonial period to the twenty-first century to offer a new vision for understanding Mayan astronomy.


Purchase Calculating Brilliance here or at your favorite online bookstore.

Learn more about Gerardo Aldana’s work at and here.

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