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Jul 20, 2010

Dr. Arlie Petters teaches kids about Mayan Astronomy

It is not a summer camp, but the subject is totally absorbing the minds of a select group of young persons from around the country. They are between the ages of twelve and sixteen and for the entire week they will be spending time at the Petters Institute of Dangriga learning about the intriguing yet advanced astronomy practiced by the Mayas. Dr Arlie Petters, the renowned scientist, is facilitating the program. News Five’s Isani Cayetano headed south today and has a report.

Isani Cayetano, reporting

Traditionally, much has been studied about the ancient Maya Civilization.  The architecture of their massive stone temples has long been the marvel of archaeologists.  Conversely, historians have focused a great deal on the socio-cultural attributes of the people including religious practices, trade economics and their overall way of life.  But what seems to be overshadowed in the many history lessons being taught is that the Mayas were light years ahead in the realm of astronomy and mathematics.

While most students are enjoying their summer vacation a class of twenty-seven has convened at the Petters Institute in Dangriga where they spent a little over a week learning the fundamentals of the Mayan calendar, their numeric system and mathematics.

Twelve year old Thaddeus Clark is one of several participants who have taken the course being offered by a professor at Duke University.  Thaddeus displays an uncanny ability to read, write, and count in Maya.

Thaddeus Clark, Participant

“There are many aspects of their lives that I and some other of my colleagues here know nothing about for example Venus, the star, we now know how many days it takes and in what positions they will be visible and invisible.”

Isani Cayetano

“And in terms of the symbols I know the Mayas used a lot of symbols and you guys are divided into teams and you have a symbol representing the name of your team.  How did you guys come up with that?”

Thaddeus Clark

“Well the Maya language is based on a syllabic way so that depending on the way you put it, it puts the syllables in line making sounds.”

Although phonics and linguistics play an integral role in communication, the ancient Maya also relied heavily on the use of symbols to represent numbers.

Anthony Deras, Participant

“The Maya have seventeen calendars and each calendars have so many numbers.  Like this one, this one has, these are one, two, three, four, five.  These are five and they are the long counting calendars and these represent, and these are numbers.  Like all of these represent one, this is one, two, three, four, this is five; a total of eight.”

According to math professor Dr. Marcus Werner the importance of learning math and astronomy ties in with these students learning the history of this indigenous people.

dr marcus werner

Dr. Marcus Werner, Math Professor, Duke University

“This course has actually been quite challenging I think but [uh] the students did very well.  We had several assignments and they’ve been very active, they’ve been asking questions.  I got the impression they were interested in, well, part of their own heritage of course.”

For Dr. Arlie Petters, a renowned mathematician and scientist at Duke University, this program has been a departure from the norm as the students, ranging in age from twelve to sixteen, are being exposed to another aspect of ancient history.

Dr. Arlie Petters, Math Professor, Duke University

dr arlie petters

“First of all the Mayan Civilization is an integral part of our heritage.  We are delighted to have Dr. Werner come and have our young people look deeper into this heritage, in particular mathematics and its astronomy.  My sense is that all of us, at least when I was a kid, learned Mayan astronomy largely through its history.  I never got a good sense of the deeper mathematical system which is a base twenty system that they employed.”

And while they may not apply this obsolete method of counting and calculation in the modern world for Thaddeus the opportunity to learn more about the past is something he will take along with him into high school.

Thaddeus Clark

“There are many things some include more mathematics than I ever thought was included in the Mayas.  It has also been very educational.”

Reporting for News Five, I am Isani Cayetano

Dr. Petters will be a guest this Wednesday morning on Open Your Eyes.

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