Did pre-Columbian Mayans know the spherical nature of the Earth?

Or any pre-European cultures living in what is now called the Americas, for that matter. I just listened to a podcast that talked about all of the remarkable astronomy that the Mayans are notably famous for yet that topic was not mentioned.

Googling, I found conflicting information. First:

but more to the point…

This was from a site called ScienceMadeFun.net

And from history.stackxchange.com:

And went on to list the cultures and their beliefs.

I know this is probably hindered by their lack of writing systems or preserved writings of the ones that did have it but is there any evidence that any pre-Columbian Americans knew of the spherical nature of the Earth?

They were very good astronomers, and that implies a reasonable familiarity with mathematics. There were ancient Greeks and Egyptians who figured out that if the moon was spherical, the Eaarth was likely to be so also. They also used the round shadow that the earth casts on the moon during an eclipse as evidence. They even managed to calculate the size of the earth and its axial tilt.

If the ancients in Greece and Egypt could figure that sort of thing out, I don’t see why the Mesoamericans could not.

Eta: I do wonder about this claim that they knew about the black hole in the center of the galaxy, though. That seems extremely farfetched.

One problem with the world being round claim is the Greeks mentioned it 2500 years ago or so. As far as I can tell Greece is in Europe.

Anything to indicate any of the peoples of the Americas knew it earlier?
Additionally, its quite plausible that the Greek knew it earlier yet.

Medieval belief that the Earth is Flat is largely a legend. All through European history their were mentions of a round and/or spherical world. It seems to have been the general consensus of the learned class. Not to mention information that flowed back and forth with the Islamic world.

“Native Americans knowing that there was a black hole in the bowl of the Big Dipper” is such a stupid claim that it renders that whole site, and everything else on it, completely useless as a source of information on everything. As for “The first four beings – Inyan (rock), Maka (earth), Taku Skan Skan (sky), and Wi (sun) are all round because roundness is the most sacred state.”, that doesn’t say anything at all about what they knew: A religious belief that roundness is sacred is exactly as valid as a religious belief that squareness is sacred.

@What_Exit makes a very good point that I didn’t really touch on - the idea that there was a widespread belief among Europeans that the world was flat is a myth. So even if the pre-Columbian Americans knew that the world was round, that doesn’t grant them some special secret knowledge the rest of the world was ignorant of.

This is patently false.

Here are two NA legends about the Big Dipper:

Although many North American Indian tribes imagined these two star patterns as bears, they typically didn’t imagine them with long tails. Most see the "handle” stars as hunters pursuing the bears. According to an Iroquois story, all earthly bears once had long tails. One such bear, attempting to show off to others, used his long tail to fish through a hole cut in the ice of a frozen lake. His tail froze and fell off; since then, all earthly bears possess only a stub for a tail.

A Blackfoot Indian legend tells of a different bear connection. The eldest daughter of a large family fell in love with a grizzly bear. Her father was outraged with this and ordered his sons to slay the bear. As the bear died, magic flowed from him to the girl, turning her into a bear. She went on a rampage, killing her mother and father and threatening to kill all eight of her siblings. The eldest son, seeing the helplessness of their plight, shot an arrow into the night sky. All eight children followed it and became the stars we call the Big Dipper. The youngest girl was frightened and hid beside her older brother. Look carefully at the middle star in the Big Dipper’s handle. That is Mizar, but right next to it is the much fainter Alcor, representing the frightened young sister of the angry bear.

Like so many questions about pre-industrial science, the issue is one of priorities - if, for whatever reason, you don’t have the capability to build ships that can sail over the horizon, then what difference does it make whether you will eventually fall over the side of the flat Earth or come back around to your starting point on a round Earth? The chain of events needed to make figuring this out important to the pre-Colombians wasn’t there.

The Greeks weren’t sailing around the world, either.

The most basic flaw in the idea that Native Americans believed that “the Earth is round” is that most, maybe all, cultures didn’t have a concept of the Earth as being a body separate from the rest of the universe. The universe was made up a series of levels, including an underworld beneath the land, the surface of the land, and often many layers of heavens. The idea of a round Earth simply makes no sense in this cosmology. The Mayans, for one, believed the Earth was not only flat but four-cornered, with the corners being dominated by different spiritual entities.

I’m not convinced about this line of logic. So many of today’s scientific discoveries are made just because someone was curious. I cant imagine it was all that different in the past.

The Greeks sailed as far as the British Isles to the west and far down both coasts of Africa and built ships as large as anything seen during the subsequent 2200 years of the pre-motorized age of sail. You only need to go far enough that people on land can see your sails dip below the horizon to start thinking about why that happens. Indigenous Americans had no watercraft bigger than canoes and rafts.

The Greek philosophers may not have originated the idea the world is spherical, but they were the first to write it down that we know of. “The world is flat” generally goes with the corollary “And Columbus proved it was round”. Not true - most educated people in Europe and the Mediterranean knew the earth was spherical and approximately 8,000mi diameter.

There was one contrary Greek who said it was 5,000mi. Columbus latched onto this theory, then used the Arab translation of the Greek writing, a different definition of the units mentioned, to claim it was more like 4,000 to 4500 miles. He then took Marco Polo’s writings and estimated how far he’d travelled to the east to get to China and India (and exaggerated that), and came up with the answer that China and the Spice Islands (Indonesia) were 3,000 miles west. He had a hard time getting backing because in every court, the scholars told the rulers that his idea was way off - it was 12,000 miles or more and ships couldn’t do that.

When Portugal was winning the race to go south around Africa, the Spanish king decided he had nothing to lose by giving Columbus’ idea a try.

I don’t know if sailing long distances really mattered to the Greeks in terms of earth shape, but it may. The philosophers simply wanted to expand on what they knew about the physical world, in all sciences. They were lucky to live in a society where discussion that did not intimately tie what they found to theology was acceptable. Unfortunately, most of what we know of the meso-Americans seems to be about religion and religious practices.

Plus, yes, they did not travel long distances routinely, and when doing so on land, had less need of the stars as a guide when surrounded by landmarks. While we might be tempted to say latitude was a detail in navigation, from what I read most ancient seafaring involved following coastlines. Only short hops across the Mediterranean didn’t.

I presume it’s not horizons that matter, but the knowledge that if you travel an appreciable distance north or south, the overhead point and pole star angle shifts as if the earth were curved. (600 miles is approx. 10 degrees latitude) For those who have nothing better to do after dark but look at stars, this sort of detail must have been obvious. The question is whether anyone put this together to get to the next step - “Hey, that means the earth is curved!” let alone the Greeks who were sufficiently tied up in trigonometry as to calculate “how much of a curve? How big a sphere?”

I’ve heard speculation that Columbus’ reasoning might have been in the opposite direction: That is, he heard tales from Northern Europeans about genuine voyages to lands to the west, and so he knew that there really was land there (which there was). And it was because he assumed that that land was Asia that he then concluded that the Earth was only about 4000 miles in diameter.

You can find this:

Washington Irving’s overly imaginative A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus notwithstanding, it was widely known by the 15th Century that the Earth is spherical. The question was, how big is the sphere? In 200 BCE, after all, Eratosthenes calculated the circumference of the earth to within one percent of its actual girth. He figured that one degree of latitude was equal to 59.5 nautical miles.

In making his own calculation, however, Columbus preferred the values given by the medieval Persian geographer, Abu al Abbas Ahmad ibn Muhammad ibn Kathir al-Farghani (a.k.a. Alfraganus): one degree (at the equator) is equal to 56.67 miles. That was Columbus’s first error, which he compounded with a second: he assumed that the Persian was using the 4 856-foot Roman mile; in fact, Alfraganus meant the 7 091-foot Arabic mile. (This is, of course, the sort of confusion of units that sent the Mars Climate Orbiter into its terminal swan dive in September 1999.)

Taken together, the two miscalculations effectively reduced the planetary waistline to 16,305 nautical miles, down from the actual 21,600 or so, an error of 25 percent.

And then there was the third error. “Not content with whittling down the degree by 25 percent,” Morison writes, “Columbus stretched out Asia eastward until Japan almost kissed the Azores.” Through a complicated chain of reasoning that mixed Ptolemy, Marinus of Tyre, and Marco Polo with some “corrections” of his own, Columbus calculated that he would find Japan at 85º west longitude (rather than 140° east)—moving it more than 8,000 miles closer to Cape St. Vincent.

All in all, he figured, the Indies were just 68 degrees west of the Canary Islands. Calculated travel distance: 3080 nautical miles. Actual distance from Tenerife to Jakarta: 7313 nautical miles. Margin of error: 58 percent.

This from - https://spectrum.ieee.org/tech-talk/at-work/test-and-measurement/columbuss-geographical-miscalculations

There have been suggestions too that Columbus knew of the Basque fishermen’s secret fishing spot, the Grand Banks off Newfoundland, where at that time the cod were huge and so plentiful later explorers said you could practically “walk on the schools of fish”. Similarly, I recall some suggestion that John Cabot knew of fishermen from Bristol in the 1480’s who had secret fishing grounds somewhere west that was not Iceland. Not to mention how Icelanders settled Greenland and at one point went further west (Newfoundland, again) Perhaps the existence of lands west-northwest of Spain was not as big a secret as we think, but something that the people in the know did not want publicized.

You don’t need ocean going ships to experience phenomena which demonstrate the curvature of the Earth - you also see them on indented coastlines. There might be a hill which you can identify. When you walk 40 miles away from it along the coast, you look back and the hill now looks like an island even though you know you are still on the same body of land, as the horizon conceals the land at the base of the mountain. Obviously this is only relevant to peoples on the coasts, but I would be surprised if effects such as this don’t occur in many places in the Americas.

There’s the Polynesians.

That doesn’t speak to the Mayans, though.

As an obvious example the Native Americans and later settlers of the US Great Plains while traveling westward would first notice a slight unevenness in the dead-flat western horizon. That would, over the course of a week’s walking become low hills that would eventually reveal themselves to be the Rocky Mountains if they trekked far enough west.

But it does speak to the Incans…

:sailboat: :

(sorry, that’s the closest I could get to a Kon Tiki emoji :slight_smile: )

I can stretch my credulity to accept the possibility that Native Americans knew that there was something unusual at the center of the bowl in the big dipper.

I can even stretch my credulity to accept the possibility that the Native Americans described this oddity with words that might be translated into English as “black hole”.

I refuse to accept the possibility that their knowledge of science - as advanced as it was - could have included anything even remotely similar to that which our physicists and astronomers describe as a “black hole”.

Fight my ignorance, please.

Nitpick: AFAICT, there is no evidence that ancient astronomers in Middle Egyptian culture, writing in an Egyptian language, used astronomical models with a spherical earth. You may be mixing up those ancient Egyptian scientists with the later Greek-speaking scientists of Hellenistic Egypt (such as Claudius Ptolemy), who like other Hellenistic Greeks utilized spherical astronomy, including the concept of a spherical earth.

I agree that there’s no a priori reason that a smart person in pretty much any ancient culture couldn’t have figured out arguments for the sphericity of the earth. But AFAIK there’s no evidence that any culture other than educated Hellenistic elites (and other contemporary educated elites in the ancient world who picked up Greek ideas) actually adopted the spherical-earth notion as a cosmological fact.

It’s likely that even in Hellenistic Greece itself, a lot of ordinary people still took it for granted that the earth was flat. Even the historian Herodotus is thought to have held that view. After all, the flatness of the earth is a pretty obvious intuitive inference from easily observable facts, and it takes a fair amount of counterintuitive deduction to displace that common-sense reasoning.

What probably tipped the scale in favor of sphericity in Greek philosophical views was not so much their culture’s seafaring experience—after all, it wasn’t Greek sea captains who were arguing for the roundness of the earth—but rather their focus on self-consistent cosmological models that would explain observed phenomena of various kinds in a coherent and harmonious (lol) way. A sort of ancient form of Grand Unified Theory, if you like.